CRIMES OF THE FUTURE
“Good afternoon, freaks!”
This was the cheerful greeting offered to me and a half-dozen other patrons at Iowa City's FilmScene on Friday, when our small yet dedicated crowd gathered for the area debut of David Cronenberg's Crimes of the Future. Our venue host clearly knew his audience, because would anyone other than a freak (or, to use an interchangeable term, a professional reviewer) catch a 2 p.m. weekday screening of any Cronenberg, let alone one depicting a world in which invasive surgery is the new performance art? Concluding his pre-show announcements with “Enjoy the goopy madness!”, the FilmScene staffer then left us to do just that, and he wasn't kidding – the movie was goopy madness, all right. I just wish I enjoyed it more. More pointedly, I wish its writer/director did.
It's been a while since this 79-year-old Canadian legend got his gore on. It's actually been a while since he delivered anything feature-film-wise. Prior to his latest, Cronenberg's most recent release was the 2014 Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars, and before that, despite memorable killings in A History of Violence and Eastern Promises and such, the last time he really indulged in the body horror he's revered for was probably in 1986's remake of The Fly. (Not that Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly, and the 1996 Crash are necessarily for the squeamish, either.) So maybe it was just a matter of Cronenberg being out of practice, or his heart (and other organs) not being altogether into it. But while Crimes of the Future is continually engaging on an intellectual level, and sometimes disturbing on a visceral one, I didn't wind up feeling much of anything – not even the disappointment that usually comes from viewing an underwhelming effort by a bona fide master. Cronenberg's grim dystopia is chockablock with iffy medical procedures, and by its finale, everyone involved in the experience – the writer/director, the performers, even the audience – seems mildly anesthetized.
The film does deserve major props for scene setting, though, because while audiences have been treated to no end of end-of-days sagas over the years, we've never before entered a faux-Earth quite like this one. Set in an indeterminate future following some unexplained global catastrophe – abandoned cargo ships float half-submerged in the water, cell phones apparently no longer exist – Cronenberg's vaguely sci-fi drama imagines a universe in which humans, by and large, have evolved past the sensation of physical pain. Rather than shooting up in an alley, vacant-looking urban wastrels pass the time slicing one another's limbs open, and the hottest entertainment in town is provided by nightclub performers accomplished in the art of self-mutilation. This practice's current standard-bearers are Saul (frequent Cronenberg ally Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Léa Seydoux), professional and romantic partners who have devised quite the specialty act for their paying public: Saul spontaneously grows new and never-before-seen internal organs, and Caprice subsequently removes them. (Can't wait to see that merchandising tie-in at fast-foot restaurants: the Cronenburger, perhaps?)
While questions of “How?” and “Why?” and “Huh?” regarding Saul's miraculous condition would likely be more than enough to sustain Crimes of the Future, they're just the tip of this intensely chilly iceberg. We're also given a pair of researchers from the National Organ Registry (Kristen Stewart's Timlin and Don McKellar's Wippet), a hush-hush organization operating out of a '40s-noir office that wants to inventory Saul's insides and enter him in an “inner-beauty pageant.” A dogged detective (Welket Bengué) wants Saul's aid in infiltrating a group of evolutionary radicals. A mysterious loner named Lang (Scott Speedman) lurks in the shadows and munches on purple candy bars that are tasty to him but fatally toxic to others. Lang's poor eight-year-old son Brecken (Sozos Sotiris), as we're forced to witness, is smothered to death by his mother (Lihi Kornowski) for his diet that consists solely of plastic.
Plus, so much bizarre ephemera and so many eye-grabbing throwaway details: the H.R. Giger-esque chair that mechanically shifts Saul's new organs as he attempts to digest; the literal zipper that's surgically attached onto Saul's abdomen; the bald, hairless modern dancer whose body is entirely covered with ears. (Saul dismisses the routine as “escapist propaganda.”) Obviously, Cronenberg's latest is a lot, and because there's nearly always something fascinating or flabbergasting to look at, Crimes of the Future is almost never boring. Unlike a lot of modern freakouts, it also gives you plenty to think about. Given the state of things, it's uncomfortably easy to imagine an Earth in which an operating theater is the new cineplex or sex club, and as icky as the conceit is, there's something poetically just about the suggestion that the only way to rid our planet of the environmental disasters we've created is to eat them.
Still, shouldn't we have been inspired to care about all of this? Or really any of it? As a director, Cronenberg has forever been a detailed clinician, and his austere (and very Canadian) approach has resulted in brilliant, nightmarish chillers such as Dead Ringers and Videodrome and Scanners. Those movies, though, had beating hearts to go with the exploding heads. Crimes of the Future imagines a world that has evolved past feeling, yet a movie populated nearly entirely by characters who can't feel doesn't do much for an audience. You watch Saul smile benignly at his surgeries and Caprice study his slithery innards and think, “Okay, that's gross … but so what?”
It's not that emotions aren't at all in evidence: Lang weeps when confronted with his child's corpse; Caprice laughs at the sight of two biomedical agents nakedly cavorting on one of her inventions; chatty, jittery Timlin looks eternally caught between a panic attack and a full-scale breakdown. (Stewart's initially enjoyable, ultimately confounding portrayal appears to be a private joke between the actor and her director that never finds its punchline.) Aside, however, from Kornowski's one scene of defensive, harrowing anger, we're kept at an uncomfortable distance from the events of Cronenberg's latest. As diverting as it is to mentally catalog the film's myriad oddities, the activity doesn't compensate for the suffocating bleakness of the imagery, or the mysteries left naggingly unsolved, or our inability to gauge what, if anything, characters might be thinking at any given time. Even Mortensen's extraordinary physical performance, the newly eyebrow-less actor twisting and jerking and coughing on his words as if the mere act of existence were traumatizing, can't make up for the movie's apparently absent soul. It's great to have Cronenberg back. But while Crimes of the Future is a rarity, it's also an unfortunate one: a work you can admire without ever really liking.
I'd never argue that, as genre outings go, Watcher is a more creative or artistic achievement than Crimes of the Future. Yet on nearly every conceivable level, I preferred it; Chloe Okuno's creep-out might not have as much to say, thematically, as Cronenberg's, but it says it so well. The narrative couldn't be simpler: After moving from New York to Bucharest following her husband's promotion, failed actress and current homebody Julia (Maika Monroe) becomes convinced that a man in the apartment complex across is street is staring at her, and then stalking her, and may even be responsible for a rash of gruesome serial killings. That may sound like the set-up to dozens of similar fright flicks, and it pretty much is. In her feature-film directing debut, though, Okuno boasts a true talent for nervy, escalating suspense and dread, as well as a gift for the melding of disparate styles. (Amazingly, Okuno delivers a blend of Rear Window, Lost in Translation, and Seven that doesn't degenerate into a hot mess.) And she and screenwriter Zack Ford have fashioned a hugely effective woman-in-jeopardy thriller that's distinctively feminist through a terrifying yet recognizable sort of banality: Men tend to not believe Julia's fears even when they're looking at the exact same evidence that she is.
As beautifully, empathetically played by Monroe, Julia knows that her apprehension about the weirdo across the way (Burn Gorman) may be mere paranoia: her husband Francis (a terrifically likable Karl Glusman) is always at work, so she's lonely; she doesn't speak Romanian, so she has no job or friends; she recently quit smoking, so she's inherently edgy. But that middle-aged guy with the lobotomized expression and omnipresent plastic bag containing something the size of a head of lettuce is always there, and even when Julia offers grocery-store surveillance footage or they confront the man himself, Francis and equally well-meaning clerks and cops offer sympathy, but no help. It's a tiny neighborhood: Is Julia certain that her run-ins with this guy weren't accidental? Is she sure he wasn't staring at her because she was staring at him first?
For a lot of women, I'd imagine, this is a very specific, very relatable horror, and employing only a bare minimum of violence (at least until the finale), Okuno puts us all in Julia's shoes, forced to question the distinction between what we're perceiving and what we in-our-guts know. It's a topnotch, continually arresting balancing act that Okuno pulls off with enviable skill, and she's aided immeasurably by cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielsen's hypnotically stark compositions, composer Nathan Halpern's sinister score, and the exquisite silences broken by fiercely loud effects – a knock on a door, the blast from a Chekhovian gun – that never failed to startle me. Oh yeah: And despite its rather queasy conceit, Watcher never forgets that it should also be fun. Cronenberg may have given us more this past weekend, but unlike Okuno, he didn't give us that.
Über-adorable though the movie never ceases to be, I'm a little surprised, and confused, when I read about how revolutionary and novel director Andrew Ahn's Fire Island (newly streaming on Hulu) is for being a romantic comedy set exclusively amongst a group of gay friends vacationing in the titular LGBTQ+ paradise. Of course, most of those articles' authors probably weren't allowed to see R-rated movies – if they were even alive – during the halcyon days of '90s queer indie comedies and dramedies: Jeffrey; Love! Valour! Compassion!; Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss; It's My Party. (Also, per the period, and unlike Ahn's release, most of these films did include a character's AIDS diagnosis or death,) But revolutionary this new, irresistible entertainment certainly isn't, nor is it novel – unless you count it being based on a novel, which, in this case, is Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice. I will admit, however, that barring infrequent exceptions such as the Mackenzie Davis/Kristen Stewart holiday rom-com Happiest Season (which was also distributed by Hulu), it's been a lo-o-o-ong 20-year-plus dry spell for fans of these genre-specific offerings. And Fire Island is just sweet and corny and bitchy and delightful enough to make us antsy for more.
Austen's prose is quoted in the very first line of lead actor Joel Kim Booster's screenplay, but it doesn't take long to glean that, obvious differences aside, we're not in the author's traditional territory here – nor in traditional rom-com territory, given that our chief protagonist and voice-over narrator is a self-described slut who's most often The Sidekick in movies of this type. Fire Island's hero is Booster's loquacious, happily over-sexed Noah, his best-pal sidekick is the shy, reserved Howie (Bowen Yang), and Ahn's film follows its P&P inspiration by sending Howie/Jane into a romance with the endearing, kind of dopey Charlie/Mr. Bingley (James Scully), while Noah tries to deny his burgeoning affections for stick-in-the-mud Will/Mr. Darcy (Conrad Ricamora). A trio of Bennet-sister wannabes (Matt Rohgers, Tomás Matos, and Torian Miller) act as a farcical Greek chorus; Margaret Cho, as the Mrs. Bennet stand-in, assumes the role of lesbian hostess. It's like Clueless at Studio 54. It's fabulous.
To be sure, the film is also stunningly inconsequential, and Ahn's staging of Booster's witty script (barring a protracted countdown to sunset) is mostly unmemorable, and two days after seeing the movie, I'd be hard-pressed to tell you how it ends except to say that it ends happily. Yet for what this unabashed people-pleaser aims to be, Fire Island proves ideal lightweight enjoyment showcasing a bunch of funny, pretty people and inviting, pretty locales. It also contains about a zillion charming touches that you'll likely want to rehash with friends later, from the boys' screeching rendition of the 20th Century Fox fanfare to Yang's in-joke reference to an SNL sketch to two of the makeshift Bennets' apoplexy when they play Celebrity with Will and he doesn't recognize their (impressively accurate) imitations of Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny. Also, this evidence of Charlie's obtuseness: “He thinks Lindsey Graham was in The Parent Trap.” Howie mumbles that he'd like to see that movie. God help me, so would I.