David Cronenberg aficionados, rejoice: the Canadian master of body horror has created a film exclusively for you. Crimes of the Future is essentially Cronenberg at his most Cronenbergish: a cerebral science-fiction puzzler in which rubbery torsos are sliced open and mysterious oracles make cryptic pronouncements that “surgery is the new sex.” It has traces of Terry Gilliam’s analogue, retro-futuristic satire, and some bony biotechnology borrowed from Alien, but it’s essentially Cronenberg at his most Cron Scanners, Videodrome, Crash, and Existenz may all be heard in the background. Cronenberg had already used the title for a film he directed in 1970. The director, now 79, is playing his greatest hits.
Cronenberg introduces his main character, Saul Tenser, played by Viggo Mortensen, after a fantastic prologue in which a boy happily munches on a plastic bin. (All of the characters have names that sound like “Saul Tenser.”) Saul’s strange capacity to generate new internal organs could possibly be the next step in human evolution. This, however, is not a superhero origin narrative. When a new organ develops inside Saul, his lover Caprice, played by Léa Seydoux, tattoos it while it is still in his torso and then cuts it out in front of an appreciative crowd.
Unfortunately, not everyone enjoys art. The administration is concerned about the population’s rapid evolution. Without pain and infection, what would we be capable of? (Though Saul is still capable of wincing and groaning, as he displays in every episode), what might we be capable of? Even though it is manned by two of Saul’s biggest supporters, Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin, the National Organ Registry keeps track of his latest growths (Kristen Stewart, who has little to do, despite getting third billing). That’s why a police officer from the New Vice Unit (Welket Bungué) keeps having secret late-night assignments with him in an abandoned shipyard. But why is it that a stranger (Scott Speedman) is interested in Saul?
Crimes of the Future is structured like a hardboiled detective thriller with plenty of provocative thoughts and pictures to make you smile (not least the dancer with many ears on his face), but you might find yourself wishing for the plot to pick up steam and the ickiness to get a whole lot ickier. Cronenberg the idea-generator appears to have a lot more vitality than Cronenberg the writer-director at this point. Crimes of the Future is a sombre, bleak film that moves at the same slow, deliberate pace as Saul’s nightly strolls through his unidentified hometown. Caprice cares deeply about what is going on, and Seydoux’s performance jumps out. (If only metaphorically, she wears her heart on her sleeve.) However, the majority of her
It’s possible that the picture might have been more engaging if it had included more characters in more settings, but it raises the idea that Cronenberg just didn’t have the funds to realise his vision in the way he desired. Although there’s a joke about performance artists being celebrities, most buskers get greater crowds than Saul and Caprice, and every street and place they visit is nearly empty. Of course, Cronenberg may have intended to create a desolate, featureless dystopia, but it’s more likely that his crew discovered some shabby, vacant buildings in Greece, where the film was shot, and didn’t have the funds to furnish or decorate them.
Not all of the production’s flaws can be attributed to its budget. The writing leaves every plot strand thread dangling, as if Cronenberg was directing the pilot episode of a TV miniseries — and what a terrific miniseries it could be with this cast and premise. However, Crimes of the Future returns to his former obsessions, albeit without quite reaching the heights of many of them. If only the plot had been given more time to evolve before being adapted for the cinema.