crimes of the future

Director: David Croneberg
Writer: David Cronenberg
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Lea Seydoux, Kristen Stewart, Don McKellar, Scott Speedman

David Cronenberg has always had an unsettling view of the human body, its many vices and its limitations. In Existenz (1999), bodies exist to serve as energy sources for technology to feed off. In Dead Ringers (1988), they’re strange specimens to be carved up and peered at with suspicion. In Crimes of the Future, the director’s first film in eight years, he maps a journey from self-loathing to self-acceptance, of learning to feel at home in one’s body, even if it doesn’t live up to your expectations of it. It’s a surprisingly sentimental swerve for the director, even if his way of getting to the heart is to repeatedly take a scalpel to the flesh surrounding it first.

The film opens with the image of a shipwreck and goes on to depict a world of cracked tiles, chipped paint and crumbling buildings. This deteriorating setting gradually becomes the backdrop to the decaying human condition. Crimes of the Future charts a new phase of human evolution, in which new and unusual organs sprout inside sections of the population. One of these is performance artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), whose partner Caprice (Lea Seydoux) surgically removes his new growths in front of a live audience. Since people have evolved past the ability to feel pain, the surgery produces feelings of intense pleasure in Saul instead. “Surgery is the new sex,” says a character at one point. The idea of people grasping for pleasure in the most extreme places, in a digitised, mechanised world that’s rendered them so desensitized to it, is a theme that’s also featured in Videodrome (1983) and Crash (1996). The vehicular accidents in Crash, the surgery in Dead Ringers and Crimes of the Future, and pain in Videodrome — they all become different facets of performance art in a society captivated by violence and the thought of bodies splayed out like a spectacle to be filmed.

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Saul’s work is monitored by the National Organ Registry, whose employees Timlin (Kristen Stewart, channeling her natural twitchy energy into the mousy character) and Whippet (Don McKellar) are keen to police human evolution while still entertaining its seductive possibilities.

Much of Crimes of the Future is shot in dim lighting and shrouded in grays, with the characters surrounded by cold metallic objects. Cronenberg stages interiors like they’re catacombs, with some inhabitants so preoccupied with evolving into the future, they don’t realise they’re slowly going extinct. For every futuristic leap this film makes, it doubles up as an elegy for everything its characters are currently losing. Even the machine Saul and Caprice use for their surgeries is called the Sark, which is the shortened word for a sarcophagus or a final resting place.

Cronenberg has always had one eye on the future — Videodrome envisioned a time when people would all go by different names, which, in hindsight, is an eerily prophetic view of user handles and anonymous accounts. A shot of a videotape being inserted into a man’s torso and nerves being replaced by metallic wires foresaw our reliance on technology, in the way that a phone is now an extension of our hand. For over 50 years, the director has been talking about the ways the human body must adapt and conform to the modern world, but in Crimes of the Future, he questions both the cost of this adaptation and the risks of resisting it. Plastic is referred to as a “modern food”, with some human stomachs having developed the ability to exclusively digest it. A character makes it a point of pride but what lingers is the image of an inhospitable world that has pushed its inhabitants to devise new ways to survive. The human form has never appeared weaker than it has in this film, relying on technology to eat, sleep without pain and experience sexual desire.

If it feels like Cronenberg is retreading the same themes that have recurred throughout his work, it appears that the director feels it too. Crimes of the Future shares a title with one of his earliest works, pointing to a filmmaker who knows he’s come full circle with his thematic obsessions. It’s easy to read into the parallels between him and Saul — both aging artists who wonder how much longer they can keep working. Saul fears for the day he no longer has the ability to shock and awe. Does Cronenberg, who’s made a career of staging the human body and in strange and grotesque ways, wonder the same?

In any case, he has nothing to worry about. On a visual level, Crimes of the Future is relatively low on body horror and gore, though the squeaking sound of a metallic instrument as it cuts against bone in one scene will make you wince. On a thematic level, however, it’s as rich as any of Cronenberg’s works. Saul must carve out a piece of himself each time he performs. It’s a powerful metaphor for the harrowing and often painful process of creating art, in which an artist must put the most intimate parts of himself on display for the public to scrutinise. The film makes the case that art must come from rebellion, from seizing ownership of the things that trouble us. The process of digging deep into the human form and pulling out organs assumes a spiritual significance, the search for meaning in mutation. At the same time, Cronenberg pokes fun at the trope of the tortured artist, with one saying, “I enjoy trauma.”

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While people’s internal organs are meticulously tracked, their motives remain more opaque, with several characters harbouring their own agendas. Many potent ideas swirl around the film’s dark world — the fear of losing control over our own bodies, the thought of leaving behind a barren wasteland for our children to inherit and the slippery definition of what makes us human — but few of them really emerge from the shadows. Crimes of the Future is not as sharply constructed as some of the director’s previous works. The various subplots unfold languidly, and while the worldbuilding is impeccable, all the themes aren’t fleshed-out enough.

Still, there’s enough here to chew on. In one scene, a cold-blooded killing is followed by the murderer’s heaving sobs. In another, a grief-stricken father breaks down at his son’s autopsy. By the end, Saul himself sheds a tear of triumph. Maybe people haven’t become so desensitized that they can’t experience acute loss, or personal joy. For all the external bodily wounds Cronenberg depicts, Crimes of the Future is a striking reminder that one of his biggest strengths as a storyteller is probing the human soul.

Crimes of the Future is currently streaming on Mubi.

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