Crimes of the Future, 2022.
Directed by David Cronenberg.
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, Kristen Stewart and Don McKellar.
In a future where medical advances have eliminated pain for most, performance artists engage in extreme body modification and the growth of unusual new organs.
It’s difficult to think of anyone who would be more at home in a film like Crimes of the Future than David Cronenberg. And not just because he nicked the title from an experimental film he made way back in 1970.
The Canadian maestro is just about the only person who could make this tale of illicit organ growth and body-morphing performance art cohere into something resembling a thesis about the world in which we live today. Unfortunately, though, even the old master of the macabre runs into a self-imposed brick wall this time around. For all of its undeniable intrigue and imagination, Crimes of the Future is a frustrating stumble into nothing much at all.
It starts off compellingly enough, introducing renowned performance artists Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Léa Seydoux) – he grows new vestigial organs, she removes them in front of a crowd – after an unsettling prologue involving a plastic-eating child. They register Saul’s new organs at the mundanely bureaucratic National Organ Registry, which is presided over by Wippet (Don McKellar) and his jittery colleague Timlin (Kristen Stewart). But in the background, a growing movement sees these unusual mutated organs as the potential next stage in human evolution.
The material is primed for a Cronenbergian masterclass, but this is a film somewhat caught between the director’s two distinct periods. It has the subject matter of a scrungy 80s monstrosity like Videodrome or The Fly, but the glossy, clinical tone and visual feel of a Cosmopolis or Maps to the Stars. The result is a strangely chilly piece of work that you often wish was nastier. There’s a certain noirish darkness and grime to Douglas Koch’s cinematography, but it feels too cold and clinical where the material seems to cry out for something with a bit more dirt. Body horror probably shouldn’t feel this clean.
Praise must go to the performances, though they appear to be ciphers for Cronenberg’s ideas more than real participants in this bizarre new society without pain or the need for healthcare. Mortensen gets little to do beyond groan and sit in a gyrating bed which looks like something you’d find in an Alien movie. Stewart, though, is especially intriguing as Timlin, who speaks in short bursts as if pausing to judge herself before each word exits her mouth. It’s as if she’s fighting a constant push-and-pull between her bureaucratic office job and her more illicit desires, with her character given the film’s signature declaration that “surgery is the new sex”.
This line initially seems like the core of the movie, but there are too many ideas competing for the spotlight. An early suggestion that “everyone wants to be a performance artist these days, but not everyone can do it” feels ripped from the headlines in an era of social media peacocking and influencer culture, but that idea ultimately plays very little part as the larger and more obvious idea of evolutionary change takes centre stage.
But Cronenberg is too experienced and talented for there not to be things to enjoy, even if the surgery sequences are perhaps a little too clinical to match the stomach-churning joy of his 80s heyday. For everything that niggles about Crimes of the Future, there’s something absorbing and intriguing, right up to a rather abrupt ending which seems to cut the film down at the knees just as it’s about to fire up for an intriguingly strange third act. The man who once taught us all to “long live the new flesh” feels curiously clean all of a sudden.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.