David Cronenberg’s return to body horror offers a nightmarish vision of the future. Or is it a pleasant dream?
The arrival of Crimes of the Future in cinemas this month is a notable cinematic event for aficionados of David Cronenberg. It has been six years since he directed a feature film, over two decades since he made one from his own original screenplay, and even longer since he graphically explored the visceral science fiction themes that earned him the title “King of Body Horror. (“It is a small kingdom, but it is my own,” Cronenberg quipped about the designation.)
The result is unmistakably Cronenberg, a return to his classic themes and ideas, which should fascinate fans while leaving the uninitiated feeling lost in a nightmare vision of the future that makes little effort to engage audiences on conventional terms.
Crimes of the Future Review: Background
Back in the 1970s, when a young generation of filmmakers (George Romero, Brian DePalma, Dario Argento, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper) was making their mark on the horror genre, Carpenter famously proclaimed, “Cronenberg is better than all the rest of us combined.” Hyperbole aside, Cronenberg stood apart from the crowd by virtue of not referencing the same artistic influences (e.g., Alfred Hitchcock, German Expressionism). Not that he had no influences, just different ones, more obscure to your average horror fan (such as William S. Burroughs, whose book Naked Lunch Cronenberg eventually adapted in 1991).
Cronenberg’s stylist approach to horror was perhaps best described as detached fascination. He was less concerned with using virtuoso cinematic technique (sweeping camera moves and elaborate montage) to build suspense than he was with exploring disturbing subject matter in the manner of a scientist training his macro-lens upon a particularly repulsive species of parasite; his detached, almost objective camera style conveyed horror tinged with fascination…or perhaps it was the other way around.
In short, Cronenberg was not merely a genre filmmaker; he was a full-blown auteur, who expressed his personal interests through the medium of horror, wedding his ideas to familiar conventions and iconography (i.e., the scientist whose experiment goes wrong, unleashing disaster). It was perhaps inevitable that he would leave the genre behind in order to explore his obsessions without filtering them through genre conventions, but during that early period his output was consistently fascinating, including at least two masterworks (The Brood and the remake of The Fly), one near miss (Scanners), and an impressive job as a hired gun (directing the adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone).
Since transitioning away from the genre, he has included elements of horror and science fiction in his work, but his films have been less consistent. Without the genre tropes, his stories sometimes lack a compelling, coherent narrative to give shape to his ideas (e.g. Naked Lunch). Meanwhile, his best results have come from adapting pre-existing sources (Dead Ringers, Crash, A History of Violence) or directing from someone else’s original screenplay (Steven Knight’s Eastern Promises).
Crimes of the Future Review: Revisiting Past Themes
All of which brings us to Crimes of the Future, which though not a remake borrows its title from Cronenberg’s early experimental film set in a future when cosmetics have killed off sexually mature women, dooming the human race to eventual extinction. Shot on a shoestring and never released theatrically (it played a couple of festivals), the 1970 version of Crimes of the Future prefigures the 2022 film in two ways: First, it shows Cronenberg exploring ideas with an almost aggressive disregard for appealing to mainstream viewers or even genre fans (the soundtrack is entirely narration with no dialogue, creating a monotonous, distancing effect). Second, it contains a bit about a man who grows new organs which are surgically removed from his body – a concept at the center of the new film.
This version of Crimes of the Future follows Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), a performance artist whose act consists of having his assistant, Caprice (Léa Seydoux) use a modified robotic autopsy table to open up his body and remove organs that have spontaneously generated because of “accelerated evolution syndrome.” In this rundown, vaguely futuristic world, the human race seems to be evolving into something that might not be human as we know it, and Saul’s performances play upon the fear and fascination of this change.
Outside of the underground clubs where Saul performs every time his body creates something new, the population seems mostly hostile to the uncertain evolutionary future. A government bureaucracy registers new organs; the police keep tabs on radical groups who embrace the change, and the wife of the radical leader (Scott Speedman, who is much more than the handsome hunk he appeared to be in the Underworld films) heartlessly smothers their young son when his penchant for eating plastic reveals that he has evolved an entirely new digestive system. Even Saul admits that his performance art, though it appeals to audiences fascinated by mutation, represents a rejection of accelerated evolution syndrome, since the point of removing new organs is to stop the process.
Cronenberg paints this bizarre world with his typically deadpan precision, which suggests a ruthless satire but without actual laughter to leaven the overall downbeat tone. The government bureaucrats assigned to keep tabs on new organs turn out to be enthusiastic fans of Saul, willing and eager to violate their professional ethics by attending his shows. A lesbian couple who repair Saul’s biomechanical chair (which helps the chronically ailing artist eat) exude a geek-like enthusiasm for his modified autopsy table, like someone waxing rhapsodic over a classic car. An audience member in an underground club dismisses one of Saul’s rivals for merely dancing to show off the extra ears on his body instead of actually doing anything with them, sniping that the appendages are not even functional.
Even Saul’s performance can be read as a spoof dubious performance art: he doesn’t really do anything except lie down while his assistant does the actual work. There is no real talent required and not even a threat of potential danger to lend the show suspense (the robotic autopsy machine seem capable of opening and closing a patient painlessly and with little blood loss and almost no visible scaring). The only appeal is to an appetite for the grotesque; the only sight worth seeing is the removed organs, whose functions are entirely a mystery, their only point of interest being their unfamiliarity. The only meaning conveyed comes from the social context – the awareness that these enigmatic growths represent the evolutionary change taking place, even if the nature and direction of the change remain obscure.
All of this is more interesting to speculate about than it is to actually observe. Because Cronenberg explores his themes without the benefit of an engaging plot, his scenario is mostly a series of sequences depicting different aspects of this freakish landscape; the only dramatic through-line is Saul’s condition, which grows gradually worse, his biomechanical bed and chair ever less effective at relieving the chronic pain that afflicts him.
Strangely, though there is little plot, there are plot twists: the repair women turn out to be assassins, which is quite a hoot; Saul turns out to be a police informer, finking on the pro-evolution radicals who love his work. These revelations are interesting, but they are not enough to stir any deep emotional in the characters, from whom we remain distant and detached – watching a weird parade of grotesquerie plodding along without the excitement of a strange world newly discovered, lacking even the perverse enthusiasm to truly shock. It’s as if the movie exists to depict what happens to its characters without making us care about what happens.
In short, it is easy to check out of Crimes of the Future. Once you have been introduced to its world, you more or less know what the film has to offer; the rest feels like an elaboration of what has already been seen, though there are some memorably queasy sequences, as when Caprice and Saul rehearse a roll-reversal performance in which he operates the autopsy machine on her. The sight of surgical instruments slicing into Seydoux’s flesh (via CGI) is about as jolting as the infamous eyeball at the beginning of Bunuel’s The Andalusian Dog, and Cronenberg films it (and all the surgery) with the same loving attention to gruesome detail that Georges Franju bestowed upon the skin graft transplant in Eyes without a Face. As Timlin (Kristen Stewart)) breathlessly proclaims, “Surgery is the new sex.”
Crimes of the Future Review: Conclusion
Crimes of the Future bears the hallmarks of a late career film, in which an auteur recapitulates themes from his earlier work to create something instantly recognizable as – in this case – a David Cronenberg Film, with an emphasis on what makes his output sui generis. It reminds us of something director Walter Hill said about the career of Howard Hawks: though Hawks’ earlier films were more well written, his later work was of more interest to fans like Hill because it recycled themes, characters, and situations that Hawks clearly loved revisiting, making the results more personal and distinct from films by other directors working in similar genres.
Crimes of the Future is that sort of film – definitely not a gateway drug for the uninitiated but rather a chance for fans to revisit Cronenberg’s favorite obsessions. There are echoes of Videodrome (1983), Naked Lunch (1991), The Fly (1986), and others. The result maybe be (figuratively and, considering the filmmaker’s age, perhaps also literally) the David Cronenberg film to end all David Cronenberg films. In fact, it may not be merely a film by David Cronenberg but a film about David Cronenberg.
It is easy enough to read Saul as the director’s onscreen avatar, an artist whose work is rejected by the mainstream, which considers it deeply disturbing and even dangerous to the “natural” order, while that same art is admired by an enthusiastic cult of followers less inclined to accept conventional wisdom about what is aesthetically pleasing or even normal. Just as Cronenberg was once accused (by critic Robin Wood) of being a reactionary whose early films enforced the patriarchal status quo and depicted sexual liberation with disgust, so is Saul depicted in league with establishment forces, his work in the underground art scene appealing to advocates of radical change that he himself loathes. And just as Saul has a change of heart, so has Cronenberg, after a decade away from body horror, has returned to more overtly embraced it as an aesthetic whose fruits are to be enjoyed as beautiful rather than rejected as horrible.
Consequently, as much of a slog as the film is to get through, it does make a worthwhile point about embracing inevitable change while humanity adapts to the unpleasant world it has created. Crimes of the Future is about society’s attempt to repress a fundamental change in the nature of humanity, but in the horror genre the repressed always returns, usually in monstrous form. That is how the the police and the official bureaucracy – and Saul – see what is happening. However, in a world polluted by non-decomposing detritus, the ability to digest plastic may afford an evolutionary advantage, and Saul eventually embraces accelerated evolution syndrome; at the finale, the chronically afflicted character offers an expression of relief to suggest that, for those willing to abandon old dogmas and orthodoxies, the outlook for the future may be promising after all.
Working with some longtime collaborators (production designer Carol Spier, composer Howard Shore), Cronenberg has projected a uniquely personal and unsettling vision of the future onto the screen and into our minds, one that ultimately asks us to overcome our revulsion and embrace a new reality instead of clinging to arbitrary standards of “normality.” Crimes of the Future may not be entertaining in any conventional sense, but it demands intellectual engagement from the audience, like an unpleasant nightmare that must be analyzed to make sense of it. In the end, Cronenberg’s little joke is that he may intend you to view this nightmare as a pleasant dream.
Our rating of Crimes of the Future (2022)
David Cronenberg presents a bizarre vision of the future that is uniquely his own, but it makes no concessions towards conventional entertainment. Longtime fans will find much worth exploring in the writer-director’s return to science fiction body horror, but mainstream audiences may miss the joke: that we’re supposed to be fascinated rather than horrified by the weirdness.
Crimes of the Future (Téléfilm Canada, 2022). Written and directed by David Cronenberg. Music by Howard Shore. Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, Kristen Stewart, Scott Speedman, Welket Bungué. 107 mins. Rated R. US Release Date: June 3.