David Cronenberg’s first film in nearly a decade sees the director exploring body horror again.
It’s been nine years since director David Cronenberg made a new film (his last being the dark Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars), but it’s been even longer—going back to 1996’s Crash and 1999’s eXistenZ—since he has explored the themes that first put him on the map as a filmmaker: the transformation and/or evolution of the human body, often via violent technological or biological means.
When his new film, Crimes of the Future, was announced, it already signaled to diehard Cronenberg fans that a possible return to those ideas was afoot: after all, this was also the title of his second feature film, which he made back in 1970 as a student at the University of Toronto. In that film he set, somewhat crudely given his resources, the template for a good-sized portion of his work to come. The new Crimes of the Future is not a remake of the original in any sense, but those dominant themes, filtered through 50 years of professional filmmaking and writing, are back again.
Viggo Mortensen stars as Saul Tenser, a performance artist who has begun painfully manifesting new organs in his body. With the help of his partner Caprice (Lea Seydoux), a former surgeon, Saul turns his condition, dubbed “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome,” into a new kind of show, in which Caprice surgically removes the new organs from his body to the amazement of spectators.
Saul isn’t the only human being undergoing these mutations in this near-future setting, but he’s the most high-profile, which brings him to the attention of the shadowy National Organ Registry, led by the odd Wippit (Don McKellar) and the fannish Timlin (Kristen Stewart), as well as an underground network led by the grief-torn Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman), who has an agenda of his own.
In many ways, Crimes of the Future plays like a Cronenberg “greatest hits:” there are the eccentric, cerebral protagonists, the machines that resemble biological creations (such as the specialized bed and breakfast chair that Saul uses to ease his pain while sleeping and eating), and of course the new organs themselves, which harken back to seminal Cronenberg works like Rabid, Videodrome, and The Fly. There’s also the director’s cool, semi-detached eye, which gazes upon its subjects with a lack of judgment but also a chilly distance.
We would venture that Cronenberg’s films have gotten even icier over the years – there’s a noticeable drop in the kind of empathy that was more present in films like The Fly, The Dead Zone, and A History of Violence. There’s an interest in the characters here for sure, but it’s hard to get a read on them as full human beings. That, combined with a lot of talking—which has also been a hallmark of Cronenberg’s later films—prevents Crimes of the Future from being the full return to form one might have hoped for.
It doesn’t help matters that the major characters often speak in strangled grunts (Mortensen) or breathy whispers (Stewart), although that doesn’t change the fact that Cronenberg still gets consistently terrific performances from his leads even if it’s a little tough to understand what they’re saying at times. You can feel Saul’s discomfort acutely through Mortensen’s physically and vocally contorted performance while Stewart brings a wanton, playful sultriness to a character who proclaims, “Surgery is the new sex.”
Even with its flaws, which are as unique to the director as its positive attributes, Crimes of the Future presents a steady flow of interesting ideas about human evolution and its relationship to both technology and the environment. They may not be as clearly expressed as in past works, and it’s hard to gauge whether Cronenberg is saying something new about his longstanding concerns (the film ends just as a turning point is reached), but one always gets the sense that there is a fierce intelligence still at work behind the scenario that’s being developed.
Despite his nine-year break, and with even more distance from his most heralded works, Cronenberg remains one of the most stylistically and tonally recognizable filmmakers of the past five decades. It’s rare to see a director still creating a body of work that is so coherent in its pursuit of visual artistry, detailed design, and thematic focus, and that’s something to celebrate in these days of assembly-line franchises and cash-grab legacy sequels. Now in his 80th year on this planet, we hope there’s more to come from Cronenberg in our future.