I saw the new David Cronenberg film the way it should be seen: While nursing an open wound. Sure, it was just a fresh tattoo, but it was also a touch-up—a returning creator sharpening and revitalizing an existing body modification; the dull ache of my immune system responding to revised art. It’s here on my arm and on the screen, where aestheticized flesh meets an experienced craftsman’s revisionism, that Crimes of the Future commits its surgical deviance. Sharing a title with Cronenberg’s second film, the latest from the body horror auteur is a return to (de)form after two decades of more dialed-back drama. Digging into the art world’s juicy guts and suturing it up as a compelling, ambitious sci-fi noir, Crimes of the Future thrills, even if it leaves a few stray narrative implements sewn into its scarred cavities.
The dreamy and experimental Crimes of the Future (1970) sees creative cancers develop in a womanless world ravaged by viruses. New organs are created (and sometimes worshiped) in a broken society now run by fetishists and hurtling towards a dire, damnable biological response. While Cronenberg’s 2022 do-over on the subject of organic novelty in a collapsing society isn’t a remake by any stretch of the new flesh, it addresses the same pet interests that’ve filled his films since the beginning. Thankfully, it does so with new subtextual success and a far more straightforward and accessible text (despite the full-frontal nudity and graphic autopsies). Unlike Cronenberg’s early work, this movie has color, diegetic sound and movie stars. It embraces traditional dramatic pacing and supplements its perversion with cutting-edge effects. And at least now the characters speak to each other—in that detached, psychology-textbook-meets-FM-2030-essay style—while the camera dives deep into the guts that fascinate us.
Specifically, the guts of Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen). He and Caprice (Lea Seydoux) are performance artists whose medium is the generation and removal of neo-organs. Saul builds them up, Caprice slices them out. Our destruction of the world, filling its oceans with plastic and its air with pollution, allowed this to happen. Humanity is now literally numb. People slice each other with knives at clubs, or in the street. Recreational surgery is commonplace. Many can only feel real pain while asleep. This unconscious suffering is just one of many sharpened sides of Crimes’ metaphor.
Art is evolving to meet this nerve-deadened world on its terms. Humans are too, literally. That’s why Saul’s able to squeeze out nasty new lumps of viscera and why National Organ Registry investigators Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart), as well as radical transhumanist Lang (Scott Speedman), find him fascinating. The trio help narratively blend the dystopian bureaucracy and thriving, subversive multimedia generated by Cronenberg’s nihilistic predictions. When we eventually ruin things, there will just as surely be new cogs in old machines as there will be new rebels in old resistances. Timlin in particular becomes infatuated with Saul’s work. Stewart’s clipped and jerky countenance can barely squeeze out her horny whispered confession: “Surgery is the new sex.”
That sentiment is Cronenberg 101. Saul, for his part, is endearingly over it. Dressed like a couture Sith, buried in black layers of drapey streetwear, he’s a worn-out analogue for the established filmmaker. He’s an aging artist, auto-generating his (still meaningful) creations. He seeks a principled satisfaction that’s almost incidental; he can’t stop, or he’d actually die. Every aesthetic choice informs his frailty: While his hooded, full-body costuming protects his sensitive form, Mortensen’s fantastic performance is understated, crunchy and physical all the way down to his esophageal clicks and clacks. He recognizes that he’s on his way out, taking in those around him with disaffected disappointment. There’re the try-hard posers (a dancer with eyes and mouth sewn shut who’s coated in ears that, Saul scoffs, aren’t even functional) and the wannabe hangers-on (Timlin, desperate to leave her archival duties behind and be part of the act). And there are the rare ones that you let get close, those who understand. There are a few asides between Saul and Caprice about doing things solely for their own satisfaction that’re as intimate and soulful as anything Cronenberg’s done.
But don’t worry, the filmmaker is still here to flex on pretenders to his genre throne. Cronenberg’s Crimes take place in a future defined by ergonomic technofurniture seemingly built by the same fucked-up IKEA that supplied eXistenZ’s gristle gun. Spectators film performances with ring-cameras, but also hoist anachronistic camcorders and snap photos with ‘80s point-and-shooters; it’s in the bony, brittle, enveloping, Giger-like beds and high chairs that we see a vision of humanity’s physical deterioration. But that deterioration has also left plenty of room for development. New organs, new systems, new ailments and new well-marketed means to care for them—all angles of an accelerated evolution taking the form of strange cancers and pica-enhancing, pollution-solving digestive developments. Crimes’ world crashes into you thanks to these incredible props, fully situating you in its gunky What Hath God Wroughttery Barn catalog. By the time its characters start unzipping torsos like so many flies, cagily opened by a thrill-seeking lover in an empty back alley, you’re immersed in its normalized transgressions. Of course Howard Shore’s grinding score would accompany a scalpel-focused sex scene.
But as Cronenberg puts his favorite tools to Crimes of the Future’s whetstone, his traditional flaws become that much more visible. There is an abundance of circuitous chitchat, only there to build out a world already effectively demonstrated through images. A series of interstitial conversations between Saul and a New Vice detective only piles deception onto the layers of narrative dermis. Subterfuge certainly goes hand-in-hand with the thematic hypocrisy that abounds, but these scenes and a few more explicit sequences of violence seem like gestures towards those that require familiar filmic constructions to grab onto. These water-treading moments, often oriented around emphasizing high-level ideas—like the lines between idealism and truth, or provocation and sin—would be more acceptable if the movie didn’t make it so clear that its maker still excels at heady, literary concepts translated to latex, silicone and metal.
In Cronenberg’s Crash, a character says “It’s something we are all intimately involved in: The reshaping of the human body by modern technology.” He later revises his stance, considering that statement a crude sci-fi concept standing in for something far more philosophically complicated. With its classically intellectual and depraved Cronenberg style, like smuggling fetish porn onto JSTOR, Crimes of the Future balances both sentiments. Erudite and exploitative, gory yet gentle, Crimes of the Future shows the new kids on the chopping block that an old master can still dissect with the best. But Crimes of the Future’s more meaningful impact is in its representation of a trailblazer finally seeing the horizon. Cronenberg’s view of the future understands that the true death of an artist and the death of society at large result from the same tragic failure to evolve—even if that innovation is simply renovation.
Director: David Cronenberg
Writer: David Cronenberg
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, Kristen Stewart, Don McKellar, Scott Speedman
Release Date: June 3, 2022
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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