Maybe the best approach to making a dystopian film, given the state of the planet in 2020, is to not set it many years from now. The ruined worlds of classic movies such as Blade Runner or A Clockwork Orange typically exist decades in the future, as grim warnings about the path society is on. But Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor, a gleefully gory bit of techno-horror in theaters starting tomorrow, is set in the past—an alternate 2008 where online surveillance has become the norm, city streets are eerily empty, and income inequality has reached staggering proportions. In other words, it’s a different world from ours, but a distressingly familiar and plausible one.
Possessor’s writer and director is the son of the Canadian master of horror David Cronenberg, who has made many nightmarish sci-fi standards (Scanners, The Fly, Videodrome). Like his father, Brandon Cronenberg seems concerned about technological overreach and expresses that fear through a particularly visceral brand of body horror. Possessor is one of the gnarliest movies I’ve seen in years, with moments of violence that drew audible yelps from me even as I watched it alone at home. (It’ll be available on demand next month.) But the film deploys its extreme imagery for a reason, interrogating notions of selfhood and agency through a plot where nefarious agents can tap directly into someone’s brain.
Think of this cyber-hijacking process as remote puppetry, a wireless form of body hopping that involves a computer spike being planted into your skull. Possessor follows Tasya Vos (played by Andrea Riseborough), an elite assassin who carries out her kills by controlling other people’s bodies, using them as clandestine weapons against their loved ones, and then forcing them to take their own lives before her subterfuge is discovered. It’s a naturally creepy premise: What if you couldn’t even trust your closest friends or family to protect you from harm? But Cronenberg is also fascinated by the questions of identity that would arise from such an invention, and by the limits to which Tasya can do her amoral work before the people she’s targeting begin to fight back.