The tagline for Crimes of the Future, “from the mind of David Cronenberg,” serves as both teaser and warning. It’s been eight years since the Canadian maestro, a pioneer of the subgenre now called “body horror,” has come out with a new movie, and more than that since he got back to his grotty roots: disturbing encounters between biology and technology; lovers bound together by a stigmatized and thereby thrilling shared perversion, often involving the mutilation or mutation of their own or other human bodies; loving closeups of velvet-lined cases filled with organic-looking custom-made tools fit for who knows what unseemly purpose.
Like many of Cronenberg’s greatest horror films (Rabid, Scanners, Dead Ringers, The Fly, eXistenZ), Crimes of the Future is unabashed about exploring the unconscious of its creator. The film begins already deep in that fantasy world as opening credits unroll over what looks like the hyper-magnified living tissue of some not-quite-human creature. The same imagery will recur at the end, again accompanied by Howard Shore’s lush, obscure, macabre score. After this fantastic voyage through the interior of a presumably alien body, it seems perfectly normal that viewers would next find themselves in a never-specified future in which an ailing man like Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) might sleep in a kind of sentient techno-bed, a giant walnut shell suspended from the ceiling on insect legs, while other appendages connect with and seem to nourish or support the man’s fragile limbs. Meanwhile, Saul’s partner in life, art, and extremely unsettling business, Caprice (Léa Seydoux), stands watch to check on his well-being and manipulate the giant walnut as necessary to assure his comfort.
Saul suffers from a disorder, apparently not uncommon in this film’s world, that makes normal human functions like eating and sleeping near-impossible without the aid of quasi-organic devices, such as an ingeniously imagined and deeply freaky feeding chair that encloses the occupant’s body within rigid constraints made of what appear to be human bones. Our modern anxiety over everyday lives that are ever more suffused by technology—a fear that has figured largely in popular art since the start of the industrial age, with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as its cornerstone text—has rarely been expressed with such simplicity and intuitive rightness. Crimes of the Future is one of those science-fiction films where the props and set design sometimes communicate more sophisticated ideas about the movie’s imagined world than the dialogue does. Once you’ve seen that sentient furniture in action, some of the characters’ more theoretical pronouncements can sound superfluous and at times silly. Still, Cronenberg’s script, and some of the performances, hint at a sense of humor that gets that laying it on thick is part of the point.
Caprice and Saul, we learn, are performance artists whose act consists of inviting paying guests to watch as she, a onetime trauma surgeon, clad in a red velvet gown, cuts into his body to expose the “inner beauty” of his technologically mutated organs. Caprice and Saul are passionately convinced that what they are doing is art, and the well-heeled-looking patrons who swirl glasses of champagne as they watch the carnage appear to agree. In their off hours, Caprice and Saul engage in erotic play that’s also heavily dependent on flesh-cutting and remote-controlled body manipulation. “Surgery is the new sex,” breathes Timlin (Kristen Stewart), a hilariously pervy Saul-and-Caprice fangirl who also happens to be a low-level functionary at the National Organ Registry. Later on, the besotted Timlin attempts to kiss the frail yet smokin’ Saul. He pulls away, confessing, “I’m not so great at the old sex.”
In addition to this kinky love story at the movie’s center, there is a ghoulish murder mystery, though the only question is why the crime was committed, not by whom. In the very first scene, we see a mother murder her young son, leaving the body behind for her estranged husband (Scott Speedman) to claim. Without revealing the mother’s motive or what the child’s father decides to do with his remains, I can say that the investigation of this crime by an agent of the biocrime-investigating “New Vice” division, played by Welket Bungué, yields the movie’s most frustrating and unsatisfying subplot. Speedman’s Lang Dotrice, the dead boy’s bereaved dad, is also the leader of an underground movement devoted to (small spoiler ahead, but this is too bizarre a plot point to find a way to communicate indirectly) evolving the human digestive system to the point where people can live off industrial wastes like plastic. No ecological or other specific motive is offered to explain Lang’s fervent belief in the future of trashcan-munching, but he and his followers make their case with the wild-eyed fervor of an activist, possibly terrorist cell.
A rusted-out beached ocean liner glimpsed in the film’s first shot implies that some worldwide disaster has brought the species to this impasse, but there is no hint as to the nature of the crisis, nor as to how the world has organized itself politically or economically in its wake. Sometimes this atmosphere of pervasive, never-fully-explained enigma feels rich with ambivalent meanings; other times, especially in the movie’s rushed final third, it’s maddeningly vague. The moral horror introduced in that opening scene of infanticide is never fully reckoned with, though Léa Seydoux provides the film’s emotional center in a magnificently acted (if mildly overwritten) scene involving the young boy’s death.
At 107 minutes, Crimes of the Future suffers from the rare defect of feeling not quite long enough. The last act, especially, is abruptly truncated: We never learn what happened to at least one major character, or the reason another met the fate they did. But the performances are mostly mesmerizing, the production design by Carol Spier creates a haunting mood of decay and dread, Douglas Koch’s cinematography offers a Renaissance-painting-worthy depth of texture and shadow, and if your stomach is strong enough to eat without the aid of a sentient bone chair after that one autopsy scene, there will be much to discuss over dinner.
The title Crimes of the Future has been lifted wholesale from the director’s second film, a one-hour-long experimental horror move few saw at the time of its release in 1970. But this new iteration is in no way a sequel or a remake. Rather, Cronenberg’s repurposing of that now 52-year-old title feels almost like the reassumption of a discarded carapace, tricked out for a new era with a different future, and different crimes. It’s a fitting choice for the title of a movie that can feel both like a triumphant return to form and like a half-finished sketchbook. At any rate, this movie’s insistent and unapologetic commitment to its own weirdness is evidence that the 79-year-old writer-director, like the ever-mutating human specimens he loves to imagine, is nowhere near done evolving.