Review: ”Crimes of the Future”

Crimes of the Future” is not just the first film writer/director David Cronenberg has made in eight years. It’s also the first sci-fi/horror movie Cronenberg has created since 1999’s “eXistenZ,” and in many ways feels like a return to form for the king of body horror, the master behind such classics of the genre as “Videodrome,” “Scanners,” and “Crash.” But as squirm-inducing as “Crimes of the Future” occasionally is— one particular scene elicited gasps, groans, and giggles from the audience at my theater, and I heard the man behind me declare, “I’m out”— it’s one of Cronenberg’s most mature, melancholy, and thoughtful works to date.

Crimes of the Future Léa Seydoux, Viggo Mortensen and Kristen Stewart Photo Credit: Nikos Nikolopoulos/Neon

This “Crimes of the Future” bears no relation to Cronenberg’s early 1970 feature of the same name, although both share a nightmarish vision of a future where the effects of a changing environment are reflected in human bodies. In this future, humans have undergone significant biological changes. In the opening of “Crimes of the Future,” a seemingly idyllic scene by the seashore takes a bizarre turn when the eight-year-old boy we are observing takes a bite out of a plastic trash can. We then meet Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), a man with what’s referred to as an accelerated evolution syndrome; his body rapidly produces new organs. A performance artist, Saul— along with his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux)— makes his condition an integral part of his craft, having Caprice remove his new organs in front of a live audience. A through-line involving a group of radical evolutionists ties together Saul, Caprice, the young boy, and several other characters, who include Timlin (Kristen Stewart) and Wippet (Don McKellar), investigators for the National Organ Registry; the boy’s father, Lang (Scott Speedman); and Berst (Tanaya Beatty) and Dani (Nadia Litz), a pair of technicians who work for the company that manufactures the biomedical machines that Saul and so many others rely on, and who are the epitome of “be gay do crime.”

“Crimes of the Future” is deeply, delightfully strange from the get-go, and the depth and uniqueness of Cronenberg’s world-building is a wonder to behold, even if the film’s constant movement between various characters and plot points result in pieces of the story feeling undercooked. It’s a testament to the intrigue Cronenberg drums up here that the film’s runtime flew by, but it’s rare nowadays that I wish a movie was just a little bit longer, to allow these characters and the space they inhabit to breathe some more. This is especially true for the supporting players, such as Berst and Dani, who pop in and out of scenes with bursts of exuberant energy and vanish just as quickly, the tense dynamic between Lang and the mother of his child, and Timlin, whose awkwardness fast gives way to an attraction to Saul and his art. Stewart’s portrayal, in which she over-enunciates and takes her breathy voice up a few notches, establishes Timlin as a mousy freak. It’s an admirably weird supporting role for the recent Oscar nominee, and there’s never a moment while she’s on screen where she isn’t interesting to watch.

Kristen Stewart as Timlin in ”Crimes of the Future”

The central relationship between Saul and Caprice takes precedence, however, and rightly so. Their bond extends beyond romance; they are partners in art and life, and Cronenberg establishes almost immediately their reliance on each other. Seydoux brings the heaviest dose of humanity to her performance, while Mortensen proves to be very funny as he dryly interacts with the movie’s dark sense of humor, before taking a heart-wrenching turn towards the finale. Both characters are contending with a world where the very nature of humanity is called into question. Is someone like Saul, whose organs are constantly growing and transforming, technically even human anymore? Even pain and pleasure are more deeply intertwined. After she watches Saul and Caprice perform for the first time, Timlin tells Saul, “surgery is the sex,” and throughout the film we see characters derive gratification from from cutting into themselves. Saul even tells Timlin that he’s “no good at the old sex.” In this future, physical intimacy has turned into something rather disturbing and cold. And the novelty of an adult man having surgery performed on him for the entertainment of others turns into a nightmare by the film’s conclusion, when that practice now involves a child, and a government that will stoop to the lowest lows to prevent general population from uncovering certain truths.

Cronenberg throws a lot of ideas around in “Crimes of the Future,” and even when they don’t feel expressed to their fullest, it’s interesting to mull over everything he has on his mind, from technology (and there’s a lot of weird technology in this movie, from a “breakfaster chair” that helps the digestive system to the pod that helps perform Saul’s surgeries) to the extent to which we can push our bodies (my biggest complaint regarding this movie: needed more Ear Man). And as messy as “Crimes of the Future” can get in the middle, the final act proves one thing that has always been true of Cronenberg’s work: the man knows how to end a movie.

“Crimes of the Future” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 107 minutes. Rated R.

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