The past eight years mark the longest ever gap between David Cronenberg films, the delicious irony being that is partially due to a global pandemic.
Loosely based on Cronenberg’s 1970 movie of the same name, Crimes of the Future is set in a biotechnologically advanced society where humans no longer feel physical pain. But some still do, including a performance artist with the classically Cronenbergian name Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and an uncontrollable ability to grow new organs inside his body. His partner (Léa Seydoux) surgically removes these organs in front of a live audience, an act that catches the attention of the National Organ Registry (Don McKellar and Kristen Stewart) and the Inner Beauty Pageant. Does Saul Tenser have what it takes to be named Miss. Congealiality?
The film peaks early, not with Curzon’s tribute to the Queen (now that was weird) but the opening scene where a child eats a bin. The next 100 minutes never match this portentous prelude that invokes the indelible intro to A History of Violence, despite recalling other Cronenberg classics along the way; Dead Ringers‘ surgical obsessions, Crash‘s injury sex and Scanners‘ bureaucratic noir, to name a few. And though it is great to have the body horror legend return to the genre he invented, there is a sense the 79-year-old is replaying the hits – especially when Stewart says, “Surgery is the new sex” in a nod to Videodrome‘s “Long live the new flesh.”
Arguably the more interesting notion is that plastic is the new food, an ecological element the filmmaker fuses with queasy commentary on art, body modification and transhumanism. As always his approach is uncomfortably yet commendably nonjudgemental, observing rather than shaming characters who truly spill their guts in the name of art – and another who is literally all ears. Unfortunately the movie’s mannerisms distract from its ideas, and for all its surgical depictions, offers surprisingly little in the way of visual interest. Apart from an early shot of the gothic castle where Tenser inexplicably lives, every scene takes place in a shabby, windowless room or near an old bit of wall in Greece.
As his choice of residency suggests, Tenser is characterised with less-than-surgical precision. While Cronenberg has been behind some of Mortensen’s finest performances, this is not one of them. For reasons never explained, Tenser spends the film crouching in shadows wearing a hood and spluttering all his lines like a motorbike failing to start; fitting for a movie that never really gets going, and seems to end before it began. By no means rubbish, it merely falls short of the bin.