An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Nathan Weinbender reviews "Crimes of the Future"

It’s been 8 years since David Cronenberg, the reigning king of psychosexual dystopia and squishy body horror, last released a feature. And like a rock ‘n’ roll old-timer coming out of retirement for a career-spanning comeback tour, Cronenberg is back and giving his fans exactly what they want.

His new film, Crimes of the Future, takes all the compulsions that have fueled his five-decade career and lays them out like gleaming surgical tools on an operating table. All the Cronenberg hallmarks are here — the biological merging with the synthetic, the violent merging with the erotic, brutality and dismemberment as a form of performance art, physical deterioration as a form of transcendence.

This is also Cronenberg’s first sci-fi film since 1999’s eXistenZ, a virtual-reality thriller that was released the same year as The Matrix and had just as many complex ideas, but received a fraction of the fanfare. Like that earlier Cronenberg film, Crimes of the Future is about lonely people who have surrendered some of their basic bodily functions to automation, using tech that itself resembles flesh, bone and cartilage.

The movie is set in a world where people either no longer experience pain or find ecstasy in it, judging by the back-alley operations where you can get sensually stuck with knives. Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), meanwhile, is a man in constant pain. He haunts his drab, underlit city in a monk’s black robe, his body continually producing extra internal organs that have to be regularly removed.

Tenser’s assistant and lover Caprice (Léa Seydoux) is also his personal surgeon, and they’ve turned the procedures into popular underground art exhibits. That’s how they encounter an agency that keeps a registry of all artificial organs and its two strange employees — one (Don McKellar) who recognizes the financial possibilities of Tenser’s unusual talent, and another (Kristen Stewart) who sees it as a personal sexual awakening.

On the fringes of the story is a group of outcasts whose digestive systems have evolved to subsist on entirely synthetic diets, a couple of thrill-seeking mechanics who moonlight as powerdrill-wielding murderers, and an undercover detective who uses Tenser as an informant on the underworld of plastic eaters.

All of this culminates in a truly macabre moral quandary, as Tenser and Caprice consider an art project that would cement their legacies but potentially violate their own ethics — whatever those may be. Cronenberg himself has dedicated his life to art that pushes well past the realms of decorum and good taste, and the film’s third act follows this notion to its logical extremes and is no doubt what inspired the reported walkouts at the film’s Cannes premiere. (Even so, this movie is a family-friendly romp compared to Cronenberg’s most morbid provocations.)

The biggest problem with Crimes of the Future is that it can’t help but seem like a bit of a retread, a greatest hits collection of Cronenberg’s pet themes. It even recycles its title from one of Cronenberg’s first films, shot when he was 27, which literalized the dangers of superficiality in a plague transmitted via beauty products. Now that he’s in his late 70s, he’s more concerned with weightier subjects like mortality, chronic pain and terminal illness, and he even ends the movie on a note of epiphany. I hope Crimes of the Future isn’t a curtain call for Mr. Cronenberg, but it would be a fitting one.
Nathan Weinbender is one of the film critics heard weekly on Spokane Public Radio’s “Movies 101,” Friday evenings at 6:30 here on KPBX.