★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
The celebrated king of body horror, David Cronenberg, returns to the genre he helped define after a long absence with his new feature, Crimes of the Future. It is a film that is a vision distinctly and uniquely his own. It has a talented and attractive cast. It comes back to body horror in a big way, and yet the film underwhelms.
Directed by David Cronenberg
The Scariest Things team actually got a sneak preview of this movie, purely by accident. It was not scheduled to be playing at the Overlook Film Festival, but due to technical difficulties with one of the other films, the Prytania Canal Place Theaters in New Orleans had David Cronenberg’s new film at their theaters, which was due for a theatrical release the next day, so they loaded up this film as a replacement, and the entire waiting line of horror die-hards was abuzz with excitement.
David Cronenberg is BACK! And he’s doing body horror again! The movie was hugely controversial at The Cannes Film Festival at its world premiere earlier in the year, with rumors of people fleeing the theater in disgust. It features Viggo (Aragorn) Mortenson, Kristen (Bella) Stewart, and French Bond Girl Léa Seydoux as the featured performers. The effects are largely (or perhaps entirely) practical, which should appeal to old-school gore fans. And it strongly ties together Cronenbergian themes of alien biotechnology, pain fetishes, body transformations, and surgery as sex.
Crimes of the Future takes place in a dystopian future, where people are evolving at an alarming rate. Among the things that have disappeared is the sensation of pain. People are generating new inexplicable new organs; people like Saul Tenser (Mortensen) who with his lover Caprice (Seydoux) make up a performance art out of the removal of his new “crafted” organs. The two become low-level celebrities for their “art” and some find it incredibly erotic, with surgery as a substitute for sex.
There are lots of loving scenes of scalpels slicing and penetrating flesh, and people writing in bizarre ecstasy as their organs are removed and rearranged. There is also a cult of people who are now plastic eaters, and consumers of synthetic materials, creating a society of outcasts looking to rise up in a strange revolution. There are spies who are tracking all of this bizarre behavior, and shadowy agents planting hints and plots from back alleys and abandoned shipyards.
There are regulatory agencies, that are acting as rogue chop shops. Theaters showcase freakish transformations, and models become celebrities by walking around with gaping wounds and lacerations. The source of this altered human future seems to be assisted by alien technology as tentacled beds, arthropod surgical cocoons, and skeletal “feeding chairs” all support the changing new physiology.
This all amounts to highly concentrated Cronenberg visionary storytelling.
So why was it so disaffecting?
It feels like that Cronenberg has been simmering on a lot of ideas during his long horror absence. And there’s a kitchen sink aspect to the way that this story unfolded. In fact, it was very hard to project where the story was attempting to go, and it often felt like it was being pulled in many directions at the same time. It was always difficult to see how the plot would end, as there were so many side stories, and the primary story of Saul Tenser’s artistic sacrifices really were ideas in search of a plot. It really didn’t go anywhere.
It said a lot. It raised a lot of crazy and fascinating ideas. But it never really produced a viable narrative. You know you are in trouble when halfway through a body horror movie, you start checking your watch. Is this about to end? Where is this going? Do I care where it goes? Do I care about any of the characters? No, not really. Can I remember how it ended? Again, not really. It closed some loops, but in order to have a conclusion to the story, there needs to be a narrative journey, and what you ended up with was a bunch of what felt like secondary stories just petering out.
The characters have such strange motivations and are so narcissistic and self-destructive that you really can’t bond with them. It breaks my prime rule of in order for me to care about the movie, I have to care about the characters. With this film, I just didn’t care about any of them, which kills any dramatic tension for me. It doesn’t help that everybody also speaks in hushed tones, making an already muddy plot that much harder to discern. If you watch this streaming, I would highly advise running with subtitles. It is a very mumbly movie.
The reliance on practical effects and makeup is usually laudable. In this instance, it does have some unintended laughs. The skeletal feeding chair is completely ridiculous. I found the surgery scenes very hard to watch and cringe-inducing, but my colleague Liz thought that those scenes looked rubbery and fake. (She has a much higher tolerance for scalpels and skinnings… so take that as Your Mileage May Vary.) Admittedly, there were some amazing (perhaps digital) creations like the dancer covered in extra ears.
I will also suggest that though I may have found the scattershot plot to be problematic, you may find the cerebral themes fascinating. It very much feels like vintage Cronenberg. If you are fond of the body horror of Rabid, Shivers, The Brood, and The Fly you will probably latch on to the themes of the altered human condition. If you enjoyed the slow and bizarre psychedelia of Naked Lunch and Existenz you may very well dig the grotesque and dreamy aspects of this film. And I fully recognize that one of his most controversial films, Videodrome, was equally inexplicable and initially critically panned, and is now considered a classic. I am one of those defenders of Videodrome, and The Fly is my #2 horror movie of all time, and I consider Cronenberg to be one of the most singularly interesting visionaries in the genre.
However, if you are looking for a compelling story with compelling characters you will probably find this to be a cryptic hash of meandering ideas. But so is a lot of abstract art. And in a way, this is like the strange surgical performance art depicted in Crimes of the Future. Perhaps it’s high art and is beyond my Luddite comprehension. If so, there will be an audience for it. Just not for me.