Crimes of the Future – movie review

David Cronenberg’s first feature film in eight years sees the master of smart but visceral horror back in the groove. Crimes of the Future (2022*) is a gripping but gruesome exploration of how technology and the human body intersect. As such, this film can be considered the long-delayed (Cronenberg wrote it in 1999 but shelved the project) third installment of a trilogy, along with Crash (1996) and eXistenZ (1999).

To borrow a line from the film, Crimes of the Future has a lot of moving parts. The disconnected threads of the story don’t really converge until the very end. And even then, some elements remain uncertain, unresolved or unexplained. Even the very final scene is enigmatic, in classic Cronenberg style.

Also in classic Cronenberg style, the shocking opening of the film is arguably the least disturbing thing about it. It’s some time in the future, and humans are evolving – rapidly. Pain is virtually a thing of the past for many, and infections have just about been wiped out. The government however realises that not all human mutations are so beneficial, and has established the NVU (New Vice Unit) in response. Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) is one of the rapidly evolving humans. He grows new organs within a few weeks. He and his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux) – a former trauma doctor – have turned this into performance art. She deftly tattoos these new organs, then surgically removes them for a paying audience.

After one of these performances, Tenser and Caprice visit the National Organ Registry – part of the NVU – where they encounter the seemingly normal Wippet (Don McKellar) and the decidedly odd Timlin (Kristen Stewart). Both these minor bureaucrats are fans of the performances (despite their dubious legality). Even a visit from NVU Detective Cope (Welket Bungué) doesn’t dampen their enthusiasm. Meanwhile, Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman) is shadowing Tenser. He holds at least two dark secrets. When he finally contacts Tenser, he proposes a bargain for the most shocking performance piece of them all.

Despite its sci-fi trappings, Crimes of the Future is really about the crimes of the present. It plainly references issues of pollution, climate change, microplastics and body modification. The message of course is a cautionary tale of where all this could end up. Whether he actually succeeds in delivering this message is another matter. As noted, many threads are left dangling, so it doesn’t really become a cohesive whole. But it still packs a ton of intellectual heft into its modest 107 minutes. Along the way, Cronenberg also presents several confronting scenes. If you’re not familiar with his work, these may be a bit too much. You’ve been warned.

The film is a visual triumph, with production designer Carol Spier and DOP Douglas Koch collaborating brilliantly to establish the film’s gritty settings (it was shot mainly around the Greek city of Pireas). Howard Shore’s (Pieces of a Woman) score is heavy on the minor keys, adding a brooding atmosphere to the brooding subject matter.

Viggo Mortensen (Green Book) is of course phenomenal as Tenser. His character is basically the only one who can feel pain, and does a great job of channelling that pain. It might have helped that during the shoot, Mortensen himself was apparently in a lot of pain from a real-life accident. Scott Speedman is a million miles from his Grey’s Anatomy character as the haunted Dotrice. Welket Bungué and storied Canadian actor and director Don McKellar lend solid support in smaller roles. But the stand-outs here are the women – Kristen Stewart (Spencer) as the oddball Timlin and particularly Léa Seydoux (No Time to Die) as the sensual Caprice.

Crimes of the Future is Cronenberg through and through. As such, your reaction to this film is likely to depend on how comfortable you are with body-horror and the director’s unique style.

* Cronenberg directed another film titled Crimes of the Future in 1970, which is very different but shares some thematic elements with this film

David Edwards

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