David Cronenberg likes the title Crimes of the Future. He’s used it once before, for a film he made in 1970. He’s using it again here, 52 years later, but there’s no other connection between the two, at least on the surface. The 1970 is comedy sci-fi about a world without women, the 2022 recycling is good old-fashioned Cronenbergian body horror like he used to make. FYI, eXistenZ (1999), his last go at the genre he dominated in the 1980s and 90s, also had the working title Crimes of the Future.
This Crimes of the Future’s origins go back to four years after eXistenZ, when Cronenberg was trying to put together a film called Painkillers. Set in a world where pain had been conquered, it was meant to star Nicolas Cage but never got made. After which Cronenberg went off the whole body horror thing and instead headed off in a less visceral, more psychological direction, with the likes of Spider, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and Cosmopolis.
But, in a Jack-Nicholson-axeing-down-the-door kind of way, Cronenberg announces he’s definitely and defiantly back back back with a story set in a twilit society where human evolution has accelerated in ugly directions, pain has all but disappeared and infection has been conquered. In this dirty, underlit world two of the star citizens are a performance-art duo – Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), a man whose body spontaneously grows “novel” organs, and Caprice (Léa Seydoux), the woman who helps tattoo them while they’re inside him, and then livestreams the operation as the organs are removed.
Cronenberg throws these two in with another couple who work at the National Organ Registry (a filthy office), Wippet (Don McKellar) and his timid associate Timlin (Kristen Stewart), plus a pair of quippy technicians who work for the tech company that supplies Tenser’s special life-support systems – Berst (Tanaya Beatty) and Router (Nadia Litz). There’s also a grieving dad (Scott Speedman) with a diet that kills normal humans. And a cop, called Cope (Welket Bungué), who looks like he just got back from the skatepark.
The soundscape gurgles like it’s digesting a heavy meal, the visuals are stygian, the score grunges away synthetically, occasionally parping in the direction of Wagnerian horns. Everyone is overacting. No one cracks a smile.
If anyone did, it would give the game away. This is Cronenberg’s idea of a big joke, largely at his own expense, a body horror tribute act done by the man himself and with everything ad absurdam. Sex and surgery overlap, just like no one has ever wanted. Performance art is this society’s highest status occupation. Tenser dresses for most of the film in the outfit that Death wore in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. At one point there is a man who is literally all ears, dancing. Come on.
Kristen Stewart gets closest to giving the game away in a fan-worship/seduction sequence between Timlin and Tenser (who, yes, is rather tense) in which she goes through a series of stealth-advances on her idol, all finger-licks, head-tilts and voice-husks as her timidity is burnt off by her desire. In a film full of them, it’s a brilliant scene, but this one elicits the film’s one genuine comedy line.
Ignore the comedy aspect and it’s a competent body horror like daddy used to make, with some interesting things to say about the impact on human society of organic-technological advances the likes of which Elon Musk’s Neuralink company are already rolling out. Factor in the comedy and it’s much more entertaining, particularly the over-ripe performances, and the justificatory speeches, like the ones made by Caprice in defence of performance art, which was more in need of a gentle poking when this film was first conceived about 20 years ago.
If you remain unconvinced, wait for the scene where one of the characters is killed as two drillbits bite into his skull. It’s clearly, obviously, laughably, a fake head. Or the bit where Caprice unzips Tenser’s stomach and starts licking the wound.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022