Altered States

David Cronenberg gets retro-weird in the art-house sci-fi satire ‘Crimes of the Future’

“Surgery is the new sex,” says a character in David Cronenberg’s bizarre, grotesque, but oddly sweet sci-fi satire ‘Crimes of the Future.’ And it’s true, Crimes of the Future does feature many shots of sexy nude or semi-nude ladies moaning in pleasure while someone scalpels their chest or their Achilles tendon. But in this movie, as in real life, sex is a distraction. It’s not what the film is actually about.

Cronenberg’s “future” is actually very retro. The TVs, where they exist, have picture tubes, not flat screens. No one appears to have cell phones and there doesn’t seem to be an Internet, or any kind of digital storage at all. I cannot recall a single car or even a bicycle in any scene. Everything is rusted and old. The only pieces of future tech that exist are tiny finger cameras that people wear like rings, and, the star of the whole show, creepy, almost anthropomorphic beds and chairs that certain mutating people need to sit in to get comfortable.

CRIMES OF THE FUTURE ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Written by:  David Cronenberg
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, Kristen Stewart
Running time: 125 mins

Crimes of the Future predicts a future where some humans have begun to evolve new organs, and most humans have begun to evolve away from feeling pain. Some elements of society embrace the change, while others reject it. Our hero, Saul Tansler, played by an endlessly throat-clearing Viggo Mortensen, is a “performance artist” who does both. He’s developed the ability to produce endless numbers of new internal organs, whose function no one can discern. His partner, played by Léa Seydoux, performs disgusting public surgeries on him while crowds of pretentious onlookers gawk and snap photos. Humanity is undergoing its most profound evolutionary step in a million years, and the art crowd treats it as exclusive entertainment.

When Viggo isn’t subjecting himself to the knife, he grunts and groans, trying to get comfortable in his bed or his “breakfast chair.” Occasionally he slinks around what appears to be a decaying city in the South of France, dressed like and squatting like a ninja. It’s all very strange and very unsettling, until about two-thirds of the way through, when we figure out what’s actually going on and what the stakes actually are. What starts as a weird body-horror satire of the art world turns into a profound meditation on the future of the human race.

Meanwhile, Kristen Stewart comes into the frame as a repressed but horny government bureaucrat, who may or may not be pulling the strings that cause the plot’s shenanigans. Stewart is hilarious and magnetic in every scene, and I guess we need to start taking her seriously as an actor after all.

Though Crimes of the Future comes together in an altogether satisfying way, Cronenberg does leave certain supporting characters and subplots hanging loose. Not all of the performances are great. Sometimes the dialogue feels stiff and pretentious, and not in a deliberate way. But as we’ve said here before, the 1980s are back, both in a glorious pop-culture sense and also in an indie underground sense. This film hearkens back to Cronenberg’s heyday in the 80s and 90s. He’d make occasional breakout hits, but more often than not, he specialized in odd arthouse pictures, the kinds of movies that the surgery gawkers in Crimes of the Future would have liked.

There’s a late-night arthouse-type movie revival going on as well, and David Cronenberg is one of the kings of that kind of picture. In fact, this is his second film called ‘Crimes of the Future.’ It was also the name of his second feature, much less accessible than this one, which he released more than 50 years ago. With this Crimes of the Future, he shows that he knows his audience really well.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

One thought on “Altered States

  • June 6, 2022 at 2:11 pm

    I look forward to seeing this film. Cronenberg’s unique early work is fascinating and, at the same time, a little rough around the edges in terms of acting, dialogue, special effects, and narrative coherence. As Cronenberg became more established in the 1980s and 1990s and beyond, his movies became slicker products. The Faustian bargain was that they tended to be adaptations of something or other. I don’t like The Dead Zone, The Fly, or Crash nearly as much. The question has become, can he unite his more polished filmmaking technique with material that is unmistakably his own and hearkens back to his early experimental days. It sounds like, with this new film, he may have succeeded.


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