David Cronenberg is a legend amongst body horror enthusiasts. Cronenberg has such a unique vision when it comes to creating beautiful yet disturbing messes that, in my opinion, his work is iconic. You look at movies like Scanners, Videodrome, and The Fly and accept that in the hands of any other director, they wouldn’t be as good as they are. Crimes of the Future is Cronenberg’s first film in 8 years and his return to the horror genre after over two decades, so naturally there’s some excitement to watching the king of body horror step back into the ring.
There’s nothing more I’d like to say than proclaiming that Cronenberg’s still got it. I want to be satisfied knowing that time may have passed, but the Baron of Blood still earns his title. But Crimes of the Future seems tired and worn out. Cronenberg has always been a controversial and polarizing director, but Crimes of the Future seems almost lifeless at times and a far cry from his best.
Crimes of the Future
Director: David Cronenberg
Release Date: June 3, 2022 (Theatrical)
Before we get into the synopsis of the film, I just wanted to make sure we were aware that despite having the same name as his second film, Crimes of the Future is not a remake of that film. In reality, Crimes of the Future was a project that Cronenberg originally developed back in the early 2000s, though back then it was called Painkillers and was set to star Nicholas Cage in the lead role. Oh, to be able to see the reality where that movie was released.
The movie we did gets stars Viggo Mortensen as a man who is continuously growing organs within his body as a part of an artistic body art exhibition. He and his partner, played by Lea Seydoux, live in a dystopian society where pain no longer exists and body modification is all the rage. To mutilate your body is the ultimate form of expression, though Mortensen is under extreme discomfort from the alterations happening inside of his body. However, the two of them use this Mortensen’s unique biological structure to put on underground art exhibits as a form of expression and passion.
There are actually a lot of different plot threads that happen within the movie that go beyond the underground body modification scene. There’s a man who is trying to convince Mortensen to use his son’s corpse as part of his next art show, a police officer trying to investigate a group of people who altered their bodies to eat plastic, and an organ curator attempting to put on an art show. These disparate plot threads actually interfere with each other numerous times and draw your attention in multiple directions, never really coalescing into anything cohesive.
It’s a shame because the world that Cronenberg creates is a fascinating one. While the world the characters live in doesn’t exactly look cheery, much to the film’s detriment, the concept of a dystopia born of a lack of physical stimulation is fascinating. Kristen Stewart plays a role as an assistant at an organ registry and becomes fascinated with Mortensen’s body art, claiming that surgery is the new sex. There is so little physical stimulation in the world that people are seeking out permanently altering their bodies and cutting each other in back alleys in an attempt to feel something. Some even delude themselves into thinking that it’s all a part of evolution, such as the case of the plastic eaters.
Yet those concepts are often buried in unnecessary plot threads. Mortensen spends most of the plot trying to discover more about the boy whose father wishes he get autopsied in front of an audience, yet he also meets several people who want him to get involved in an Inner Beauty Pageant. It’s built up in multiple scenes, but it never happens in the film. Two side characters that are introduced as comic relief have a sudden heel turn in the final sequence that is never explained. Mortensen ponders if he is the next link of human evolution due to his unique skills, but there’s little elaboration on what that exactly means.
I wouldn’t even say that Crimes of the Future feels like it left a lot on the cutting room floor because the movie is incredibly brief. It clocks in at just over an hour and a half, yet it drags a ton despite all of the content jammed into it. I tend to attribute this to a bland world design. The dystopia is thematically and psychologically interesting, but the movie is shot in dark, underground bunkers with a lot of browns and greys.
Thankfully, if you are looking for some good body horror, you’ve got that in spades here and it is top-notch. No criticisms from me there, it’s some deliciously unsettling stuff. As far as Cronenberg’s iconic designs are concerned, they do crop up periodically and add some visual fanfare to the sets, but they are literally props that are only there to look pretty. It comes across at times like Cronenberg needed some of his classic imagery in order to reassure audiences that this is indeed a movie by him.
It speaks to the lack of confidence that’s on display here. You can definitely tell at times that this was an abandoned concept that was revived but needed a lot of extra help to get it into a passable state. Let’s say that you don’t mind all the issues with the plot as long as the performances are solid. To be fair, a handful of them are very engaging. Kristen Stewart is slowly becoming one of my favorite actresses since she’s very high strung throughout the film but dominates when she’s onscreen since you’re never quite sure what’s going on in her mind. Mortensen and Seydoux, meanwhile, have an incredibly infuriating tendency to whisper all of their dialogue. You almost need subtitles to understand them since they mumble so much and speak in grand poetics that when you can understand them, you have no idea what they’re even saying.
I will not call Crimes of the Future pretentious though. While it may be easy to lob that claim at it given its examination of art circles and its discussions on the nature of beauty, I think that ultimately the message that it has to say about the desensitization of society is a compelling one. It actually makes several jabs at performance artists and art snobs, like when a person grafts a bunch of eyes to their body and dances around, yet all one person can remark is that the ears serve no purpose and it’s just meant to shock people. I almost wish the film didn’t then fall into those exact same pitfalls, so the results feel half-hearted.
Crimes of the Future is a film that needed a lot more time in the oven. While the core concept is solid, the script needed a few more rewrites to iron out the kinks in the plot. Having a bit more of a budget to really bolster the depravity of the world would have helped too, as well as giving some better direction to Mortensen and Seydoux. Cronenberg isn’t for everyone, but I wouldn’t even go so far as to say that Crimes of the Future is for diehard Cronenberg fans. Maybe if you just want to see what a modern-day Cronenberg film would look like you’ll come out of this satisfied, but if not, you’ll probably walk out of the theater just as disappointed as I was.