After eight years since his last movie, David Cronenberg comes back to the big screen this year with Crimes of the Future. Although it shares the same title as Cronenberg’s (incredibly dull) 1970 film, it is not a sequel, reboot, or remake. Instead, we get a return to body horror through sickening production design that immediately recalled the bioports and controllers from eXistenZ and unflinching sequences presenting surgery as the new sex.
Crimes of the Future Are Different in A World Where Pain Doesn’t Exist
Oh yeah, Crimes of the Future is set in a world where pain no longer exists, thanks to a disease named “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome,” which our protagonist, Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), suffers from. He’s accepted his fate and new condition. He has become a performance artist with his partner, Caprice (Léa Seydoux), where they craft shows that involve the removal of new organs his Accelerated Evolution Syndrome-ridden body creates.
As if that wasn’t weird enough, the duo is quickly noticed by National Organ Registry investigators, Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart). They both want to use Saul’s body for their gain. Wippet wants Saul to register at the Inner Beauty Pageant, while Timlin becomes sexually attracted to Saul’s body. Meanwhile, a father named Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman) asks Saul to perform a show with his son, Brecken’s (Sozos Sotiris) deceased body, which allowed him to eat and digest plastic when he was alive.
All of this sounds confusing and weird -it is, but that’s Cronenberg for you- but the most disappointing aspect of Cronenberg’s return to body horror is how lukewarm most of his ideas, and plotlines, come into play. He introduces an interesting idea or theme, only for him to drop it in the following scene and move on to the next one until the movie abruptly ends, smack bang in the middle of when it started to get juicy, and pretty violent. Because of this, none of the ideas Cronenberg presents in Crimes of the Future, starting with our personal relationship to our (and others’) bodies, feel undercooked.
How ambitious is it to introduce a world that feels no pain, and therefore characters are in the street cutting themselves, trying to experience pain, but all they can feel is lust and attraction to their inner organs? It sounds like an incredible basis from the master of body horror, but Cronenberg doesn’t do much with that idea or character. Most of their arcs are half-resolved by the end, with some disappearing and never coming back into play. It’s a rather unfulfilling project from Cronenberg (23 years in the making), even if some of it works brilliantly.
For starters, every single sequence involving physical transformations, dissections, or the weird contraptions Mortensen’s character keeps being on, is genuinely terrifying to watch. No one does body horror quite like Cronenberg, plunging us deep into the human body’s twisted beauty, unveiling, in turn, some of the most potent images you’ll see all year. It’s pure catharsis but won’t prompt mass walkouts. It’s just enough to make you very uncomfortable, particularly when Mortensen slowly chokes on food while eating on a skeleton-like chair helping him digest food, but it’s doing the exact opposite, or when Kristen Stewart’s character comes into play and becomes aroused by Saul’s artistic performances.
Stewart has never been better. No, I thought her performance here was better than anything she’s done in her career because her character is so captivating to watch. It’s a shame that she isn’t in the movie much, but she lights up the screen every time she appears in Crimes of the Future. It’s almost as if she was waiting to work with Cronenberg her entire career for her to unleash her acting talents that she hasn’t had the chance to show to the world. Even in movies like Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper, and Spencer.
You’ve never seen Stewart in a film quite like this, and she’s impeccably paired with Don McKellar, who also gives one of his most unique performances. Whenever he teams up with Cronenberg, he delivers some of his most nuanced portrayals yet, and Wippet in Crimes of the Future is no exception.
But the undoubtable star of Crimes of the Future is Mortensen, who gets to do lots of f—d up stuff. I’ve already talked about the chair bits, but those are genuinely terrifying. You get a certain unease when you hear him choke on his food multiple times, or even when walking down the street, hooded (and masked) but hacking something at the back of his throat. Those small but incredibly effective moments are more courageous than the bulk of the movie’s body horror because the performers are far more invested in the movie than we are.
Seydoux is also very good as Caprice, but her character feels like the most underdeveloped bunch, even if she gets more screentime than Stewart. Because of Stewart’s ability to magnify the screen, she stands out from Seydoux and brings so much depth to her character in such a short time.
Some of the other plotlines, involving Speedman’s character, or a detective played by Welket Bungué, aren’t as strong as the performance art piece, which is Crimes of the Future’s main point of focus. And without such incredible performances from Mortensen, Stewart, and McKellar, alongside a fascinating score from Howard Shore and lavish cinematography from Douglas Koch, the movie might’ve been one of Cronenberg’s worst projects alongside his 1970 Crimes of the Future. But the film’s theatrical experience is an alluring one. In typical Cronenberg fashion, it will be one you’ll remember long after the lights have gone back up.
Crimes of the Future is now playing in theatres.
Are you excited about Crimes of the Future? Have you thought about how we perceive our bodies? Is it a unit or a sexual device? Let us know what you think in the comments below or on Twitter. And remember what Pete Egoscue once said, “Pain is not something to be feared; it is something to be understood.”