Landscape with Invisible Hand, 2023.
Written and directed by Cory Finley.
Starring Tiffany Haddish, Asante Blackk, Kylie Rogers, Josh Hamilton, Michael Gandolfini, and William Jackson Harper.
A pair of teenagers come up with a plan to ensure their families’ futures when an occupying alien race’s promise of economic prosperity leaves most of humanity impoverished and desperate.
You certainly can’t accuse filmmaker Cory Finley of repeating himself. Following up his black comedy debut Thoroughbreds and 2019 crime drama Bad Education, Finley pivots now to sci-fi with an adaptation of M.T. Anderson’s 2017 novel Landscape with Invisible Hand. In many ways resembling a feature-length pilot episode of the most deranged sitcom ever, Finley’s flawed-yet-intriguing third film has some serious cult classic potential.
The story kicks off in 2036, five years after The Vuvv – a race of pink, squishy alien creatures who communicate by rubbing their tentacles together – made first contact with humanity. The world’s governments quickly surrendered amid the promise of the Vuvv using their advanced technology to eliminate the need for humans to work. But even a willing alien invasion can’t wipe out class warfare or capitalism, as the chasm between the haves – living in luxury in mobile cities floating in the sky – and have-nots grows only larger.
Faced with few economic prospects, newly acquainted teenagers Adam (Asante Black) and Chloe (Kylie Rogers) decide to broadcast their burgeoning romance to the Vuvv, who as creatures that reproduce asexually have no concept of love and so are absolutely fascinated by it. But before long Adam and his mother (Tiffany Haddish) find themselves caught up in the web of Vuvv bureaucracy, where they must strike a bizarre deal to ensure their safety.
As you might’ve guessed from that synopsis, this is blunt-force satire without any aspiration to subtlety whatsoever. When we think of alien invasions, we typically consider them either drastically improving life on Earth or wiping it out, but Finley’s film considers a third option – what if they just made the horrors of capitalism even worse?
At the very start of the film, one of Adam’s high school teachers loses his job after getting underbid by one of the Vuvv, and not content to literally live above everyday citizens, the rich residing in floating cities drop their trash from the sky for the poor to sift through. How’s that for upward mobility?
That seems positively sly compared to Adam and Chloe’s whole livestream escapade, though, which at least has the good sense to be aggressively tongue-in-cheek, by way of Chloe’s relentless expository descriptions of human customs, as apparently pleases the Vuvv viewers. But when the broadcasting subplot goes kaput, the story segues into a deeply twisted parody of 1950s sitcoms, as Adam’s mother forms an unconventional pact with one of the aliens.
It’s wacky enough to evoke the vibe of peak-era Terry Gilliam, in a film that appreciably rarely goes more than a few minutes without doing something profoundly weird – much of which is best left unspoiled. But we can talk more freely about the world-building, which Finley and his crew have clearly put a ton of effort into.
From the aforementioned UFO-sized land masses floating over Adam’s neighbourhood, to the grotesque blobs of synthetic cow cells citizens now eat for nourishment, to a ridiculous Duolingo-like app for the Vuvv language, there’s a lived-in quality to the world that’s accentuated by its overall heightened aesthetic. While clearly shot on a budget, the VFX are generally pretty solid, especially the plentiful glimpses of the Vuvv going on maneuvers. Production design goes a long way to selling the transformative nature of the alien invasion, and Finley is certainly smart about what he shows and what he conceals.
On-the-rise leads Asante Blackk and Kylie Rogers may not be names you’ve heard before, but they bring a lot to the table here, not least their frankly adorable chemistry as their budding romance blooms. But matching them is Tiffany Haddish, who’s clearly having a blast spending so much of the story squabbling with one of the Vuvv. As for Michael Gandolfini, William Jackson Harper, and Josh Hamilton? They can’t help but feel a bit wasted in comparatively unremarkable roles as members of Adam and Chloe’s families.
Even at a seemingly reasonable 105 minutes, this does rather outstay its welcome, unaided by a flabby mid-section before petering out once again in the final stretch. Yet Landscape with Invisible Hands also marks such a peculiar, left-field swing from Finley that it’s tough not to somewhat respect the sheer sloppy gall of the entire enterprise.
Cory Finley’s bonkers sci-fi satire will understandably be too unwieldy for many, but there’s a charm to its unhinged messiness which just about papers over the cracks.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.