CRIMES OF THE FUTURE: 3 ½ STARS. “an olio of subversive ideas.”
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If so, David Cronenberg must be basking in the reflected glow of some pretty serious film fawning. The OG of Body Horror’s influence can be seen in lurid detail in recent movies like the Palme d’Or winner “Titane” and Natalie Portman’s biological thriller “Annihilation” among others.
The Virtuoso of the Grosso Rosso returns to cinemas after an eight-year break with “Crimes of the Future,” an all-star story of eroticized human evolution starring Kristen Stewart, Viggo Mortensen and Léa Seydoux.
Named after an early Cronenberg movie and based on a script the director wrote in the early 2000s, “Crimes of the Future” takes place in a time when “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome” has all but eliminated pain in most humans.
“Desk top surgery” is commonplace and a practice that performance artists Saul Tenser (Mortensen) and former trauma surgeon Caprice (Seydoux) turn into a form of nightclub bio-entertainment.
Saul’s advanced AES enables him to grow new, never-before-seen organs, which Caprice removes as part of their medical-theatrical shows. The gruesome act attracts lots of attention, particularly from Timlin (Kristen Stewart), an investigator from the National Organ Registry who becomes enchanted by Saul. “Surgery is the new sex,” she coos to him. “I wanted you to be cutting onto me.”
There’s more. Transformation activist Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman) requests Saul and Caprice perform a public autopsy on his late, eight-year-old son, the New Vice Unit (“There’s no crime like the present!”) investigates the rapidly changing world of body modification while Saul considers entering a literal “inner beauty contest.”
Despite the array of bits and pieces we see on screen, the most important body part in “Crimes of the Future” is the head. Cronenberg’s head. The director has made a cerebral film, one that riffs on his “Videodrome” era “old flesh vs. the new flesh” mantra.
Laden with metaphor, it’s a portrait of a rapidly changing world where bodies are morphing and shadowy government organizations work feverishly to understand the repercussions. They fear too much evolution could lead to insurrection. That eventually we’ll morph into something that isn’t strictly human and wonder what happens when we can’t feel anything anymore.
That last point is the film’s beating heart. When Saul tells Timlin that he’s, “not very good at the old sex,” it signals a search for something new, of different sensations. In a numb world, where do you go for kicks? Is it the performance art of Saul and Caprice, or something else? Is it evolution or revolution, or both? If everything is changing, is anything new?
“Crime of the Future” asks many questions, but stops just short of providing understandable resolutions. Cronenberg is interested in provocation, in world building, in bringing together previously investigated themes (cults, new flesh, odd children) in a new way to add brush strokes to a painting he began with films such as “Shivers” and “Rabid.”
Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises” muse Mortensen gets under the skin of Saul. Charismatic, he’s a rock star of a sort, willing to give of himself for his art. Often hidden under an Ingmar Bergman “Seventh Seal” cloak, he is a reluctant celebrity, a man who spends the bulk of the film reacting to his surroundings, his body and mutations. It’s something different for Mortensen. Saul is a passive, brooding character vulnerable to the whims of his ever-changing body. It’s a quiet yet powerful performance that details a man trying to maintain his humanity, despite the elimination of many of his most human traits, pain chief among them.
Co-star Seydoux’s mix of sensuality, artistry and humanity brings warmth to the film’s cool texture.
Stewart, as the mousy Timlin, is all eagerness. She’s timid but curious, speaking in a strange cadence, as if a hummingbird dubbed her lines.
Both help blunt the edge of the blood-splattered story, bringing feelings to a world drained of such sentiments.
“Crimes of the Future” is an olio of ideas. The neo-noir setting plays host to an unconventional love story, a parable of climate change (characters have a taste for waste in a world where garbage is becoming more accessible than food), evolution and the search to feel something real. The result is a subversive movie that, as Caprice says, is “juicy with meaning,” but perhaps too enigmatic for those unfamiliar with the director’s body horror oeuvre.