Even today, the name of “David Cronenberg” is synonymous with the body horror subgenre. With the triple-whammy of Scanners, Videodrome, and The Fly (1986), Cronenberg cranked out three of the most iconic and disgusting horror films of the ’80s, and he kept at it right up until eXistenZ in 1999. But then the year 2000 came and went, and Cronenberg took a more subdued turn. With A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, A Dangerous Method, Cosmopolis, and Maps to the Stars, Cronenberg has spent the 21st century dealing in more psychological drama without nearly as much in the way of practical effects. Meanwhile, his son Brandon Cronenberg has kept up the family tradition with such works of body horror sci-fi as Antiviral in 2012.
So here’s Crimes of the Future, in which Cronenberg Sr. goes back to his body horror roots. In fact, he’s going so far back that he’s writing/directing an extremely loose “in name only” remake of a film he made all the way back in 1970. The film stars Viggo Mortensen (with whom Cronenberg has collaborated multiple times since 2000), along with quirky arthouse darlings Lea Seydoux and Kristen Stewart.
Our stage is set in a dystopian future in which human evolution has flown clear off the rails. A number of people are spontaneously growing new organs with no apparent function, most of the population is no longer capable of feeling pain, and infections are a thing of the past. Thus we have an old-school Cronenberg “biopunk” future in which technological innovation and societal progress are driven forward through biomechanical devices. More importantly, this premise lends itself to a world in which surgery is far more commonplace and much less risky than it currently is.
Mortensen plays Saul Tenser, a man with an especially prolific case of spontaneous organ growth. Seydoux plays Caprice, a former trauma surgeon. Together, Caprice surgically extracts Saul’s novel organs in front of an enraptured audience as a kind of performance art. Indeed, there’s a budding entertainment industry of people showcasing exotic mutations and bizarre new surgeries.
The plot thickens with the arrival of Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman), who comes to Saul with the proposal of performing a public autopsy. What’s more, Lang wants to make an artistic spectacle from the corpse of his young son (Brecken, played by Sozos Sotiris), who was suffocated under unusual circumstances.
This brings us to “New Vice”, a new division of law enforcement tasked with keeping human mutations from getting too far out of control and policing any black market activities arising thereof. One department of New Vice is the National Organ Registry, a fledgling bureaucracy staffed by Wippett and Timlin (respectively played by Don McKellar and Kristen Stewart), who keep tabs on whatever unknown organs crop up. Though both of our resident bureaucrats are much more involved with the freaky new sexual fetishes of this biopunk future.
Rounding out the cast, we have Berst and Router, respectively played by Tanaya Beatty and Nadia Litz. These are the technicians responsible for maintaining the weird biological hardware and software that keep this world running. And of course they’re as sexually perverse as anyone else in this picture.
(Side note: I was surprised to hear that Natalie Portman was up for a role in this picture until scheduling conflicts with Marvel took her out of the running. Given how Portman has typically gone so far out of her way to avoid explicit sex and nudity in her work, it’s hard to imagine her in such a horny film as this one. By contrast, Portman’s role went to Seydoux, who’s famously done so much nudity on film for so much less than this.)
First, last, and at all times, this movie is pure uncut body sci-fi. Absolutely everything is filtered through a visceral lens. Thus surgical penetration becomes a metaphor for sexual penetration. “Opening up” literally means “opening up” emotionally. Ditto for “what’s on the inside”. And that’s not even getting started on such concepts as “suffering for art”, “transformation through art”, creative expression, and developing into a stronger and wiser person, all expressed in the gut-churning language of human anatomy and surgery.
That’s not even getting started on the ethics or the long-term implications of what Saul and Caprice are doing. After all, the growth of entirely new organs would imply the potential for novel systems — Saul and those like him could literally grow a new nervous system, a new digestive system, a new lymphatic system, etc. This could potentially kill him, thus surgery would be necessary to remove the organs. In turn, Saul and Caprice are parlaying this necessity into art and profit, which is only ethically justifiable (and barely, at that) because both parties are consenting adults.
But on the other hand, what if Saul or anyone else actually survived this spontaneous organ growth? What if they went on to live with a whole new system of organs? Would they even be considered human at that point, and would they have all the rights and ethical considerations given to a human? Even crazier, what if this really was the next step in human evolution, the key to mankind’s survival on this increasingly uninhabitable planet?
This is all transhumanist stuff far beyond any future that might be considered plausible or even conceivable. While that certainly makes for a fascinating movie, it also makes for a frustrating movie. The exposition is slow and terribly opaque, and the concept is so far out there, thus the audience is typically dragged behind in a futile effort at understanding everything to the extent that the characters do. This is an especially huge problem with regards to the third act, when certain characters (Berst and Router, in particular) take actions with unclear motivations and unknown results. It all makes for a film that makes more symbolic sense than literal sense.
To be clear, everyone is trying their best to sell this. The production design is fantastic throughout, and the actors are all bold and charismatic enough to make for a watchable film. But that can only do so much when the world-building is so opaque and the film is this trippy by design. It certainly doesn’t help that Viggo Mortensen — who’s playing our main character, remember — goes through most of the film covered head to toe in a mask and a hooded black robe, to say nothing of a throat made horribly raspy by all his ongoing health issues.
For better or worse, I feel confident in stating that Crimes of the Future will be the body sci-fi horror by which all others are measured. This film is practically the body horror manifesto, a definitive listing of the genre’s themes and visual hallmarks. This is literally the only context in which the film makes sense. The narrative is opaque, the premise is outlandish, and the characters are so aggressively quirky that they are indeed no longer recognizable as human.
Body horror enthusiasts should see this one ASAP. Everyone else can wait for home streaming. The film may not be for everyone, but this is the kind of uniquely bizarre that everyone should experience at least once, just for the sake of it.