Watching Netflix’s Mute Is Like Counting Electric Sheep

Duncan Jones’ dream project was hyped as a daring spiritual sequel to Blade Runner. Instead it just feels like a retread.

Alexander Skarsgård in Mute.
Alexander Skarsgård in Mute.
Keith Bernstein / Netflix

Netflix is the place where dreams come true. Or, in the case of Duncan Jones’ Mute, where they go to die. Jones has been working on the film, a noir-inflected science-fiction thriller set in a dystopian future Berlin, since even before he made his feature debut with 2009’s Moon—and talking it up ever since. But it seemed destined to be one of those projects that was forever just around the corner, always the movie Jones was making after the next one. Even an attempt to more cost-effectively turn the story into a graphic novel fizzled, although Jones released an image from the illustrated work in progress in 2013. The $400 million–plus in worldwide box office earned by Jones’ Warcraft seemed like it might finally give him the capital to get Mute made, but it wasn’t until Netflix stepped in that the long-gestating passion project finally came to fruition.

The most puzzling thing about Mute, now that the product of Jones’ 20-year obsession is finally streaming on Netflix, is how little of the inspiration that must have fueled his devotion made it through to the final cut. The movie opens with the startling image of a boy underwater bleeding from gashes on his neck, which seems to promise something outlandish in store. (You can practically picture some studio development executive reading to the bottom of the script’s first page and then tossing it aside.) But the only thing that’s shocking about the movie that follows is how thoroughly banal it is. It’s like watching a magician spend several minutes on elaborate flourishes and then drawing your card from a deck of one.

In a sense, Mute is a perfect Netflix product, in that any capsule description is bound to sound more interesting than the thing itself. Who wouldn’t want to watch a movie about a mute Amish bartender navigating a seedy underworld of robot sex clubs and underground limb-replacement clinics? (OK, a lot of people, but it certainly doesn’t sound dull.) Throw in Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux as a pair of wisecracking surgeons inspired by Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland in M*A*S*H and a whip-wielding Dominic Monaghan in full geisha makeup, and it would seem the least you could be guaranteed is a good time. But the story that connects these glittering dots is so worn-out it actively repels your attention. If you Netflix and chill to Mute, you’ll be at the chill part in no time.

Alexander Skarsgård plays Leo, who tends bar at a neon-lit nightclub when he’s not spending time with his girlfriend, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), or carving designs into wood. He’s a quiet sort, and not just because a childhood encounter with an outboard motor critically damaged his vocal cords. The future offers him ample opportunities to regain his voice, from cybernetic voiceboxes to miniature texting devices, but his Amish upbringing makes him what one character calls a “techtard” averse to all but the simplest of gadgets. One day Naadirah disappears, and as he looks for her, Leo is drawn deeper into a world populated by several different layers of mobsters, whose off-the-books medical needs are attended to by Duck (Theroux) and Cactus Bill (Rudd), both veterans of the still-raging conflict in Afghanistan whose dark, acidic humor masks moral injuries their outward demeanors barely hint at. The law of disparate plotlines dictates that these two apparently distinct stories will eventually converge, but for a long time it’s like toggling between browser windows playing distinct but equally unengaging movies whose only benefit is that they provide a respite from one another.

In Moon and Source Code, Jones showed a gift for bringing the glossy inventions of much science fiction back down to earth, and there are moments when Mute does the same: As Leo tries to track down one lead, he’s surveilled by a camera surrounded by tiny stuffed animals, and one ingenious break in the case comes via the futuristic equivalent of ordering a meal from Seamless. But especially in a movie that, with its grimy-but-glowing vision of a world where technology has mainly been harnessed to sate people’s basest desires, owes so much to Blade Runner, Mute’s failure to interrogate or even complicate its nearly century-old noir DNA is mildly shocking. It’s a story built around women’s absence and their silence set in a future where, apart from one black Russian mobster, only white men play significant roles. That kind of (being generous) archetypical framework might pass were it embellished with better ideas, but Mute is virtually bereft of them, and coming only a few months after Blade Runner’s own megabudget sequel, Mute’s riffs on the original’s visual style can’t help but feel a tad threadbare. It certainly doesn’t help that in most of the world, if not the U.S., Mute arrives on Netflix at the same instant as the genuinely knotty and already-polarizing Annihilation, which only makes it feel more like an impoverished cousin. Duncan Jones must have believed there was an incredible movie in his head. If there was, it’s still in there.

Sam Adams is a Slate senior editor and the editor of Slate’s culture blog, Brow Beat.