The gray-haired, cloak-wearing protagonist of David Cronenberg’s new science-fiction film, Crimes of the Future, is a very particular sort of conceptual artist. Saul Tenser (played by Viggo Mortensen) sleeps in a bizarre contraption that looks like a spiky womb, speaks with the cadence of someone being strangled, and is constantly growing new organs, which his partner, Caprice (Léa Seydoux), surgically removes from his body for a live audience. The primary question that vexes him is not how to survive his curious condition, but one that has probably crossed the mind of every artist—whether he’s losing his edge.
Crimes of the Future is the first film from the Canadian writer and director Cronenberg in eight years. It’s also his first major venture into sci-fi and horror since Existenz came out in 1999, around the same time he actually wrote Crimes. At that point in his career, he was pushing against just about every boundary he could find in those genres, but his recent output has been more grounded in tone. In his return to familiar territory, Cronenberg ruminates on the ways technology can change the very meaning of being human. This time, he filters those cerebral themes through the story of an aging legend who seems unsure if his art still has the capacity to shock.
Despite the parallels between the director and his subject, this film is not Cronenberg’s swan song—the screenplay is roughly two decades old, after all, and he already has another project in the works. But Crimes of the Future has an elegiac whiff to it nonetheless. Cronenberg is 79 years old and just took his longest break between films ever. And Crimes shares a name with one of his earliest movies. Cronenberg is at least winking at the audience about his career coming full circle, and in casting one of his most reliable collaborators, Mortensen, he’s found a wonderful onscreen analogue.
Crimes of the Future’s murky dystopia is set in a depopulated world ravaged by unspecified climate disasters, where humanity has evolved past the ability to feel pain. Amateur surgery has consequently become an artistic movement. People gather in concrete basements to watch bodies opened up and exotic organs removed, in a discordant echo of Victorian surgery theaters. Saul and Caprice, who are both performance partners and lovers, are masters of the form, but their romantic and creative spark may be vanishing—there are, of course, only so many weird internal appendages you can cut out before the routine starts to feel corny.
Mortensen’s performance is stripped of all his natural charisma. Saul stalks around in a herky-jerky manner that matches his throttled voice, his body endlessly tormented by the new things it’s growing. Only his sleeping husk (dubbed an OrchidBed) and automated feeding chair seem to give him any peace at all. The character would feel mannered if Mortensen’s work weren’t so incredibly tender. Seydoux’s contribution is every bit as subtle, although her character’s desires are more ambitious; she wants to care for Saul but yearns to push the boundaries of the surgical work they’ve done together.
For a movie about gory surgeries serving as the only entertainment of a ruined Earth, Crimes of the Future is surprisingly lighthearted. It’s shot through with even more mordant humor than Cronenberg’s last film, Maps to the Stars. A viewer expecting the intense viscera of the director’s earlier bloody classics, such as Videodrome and Scanners, may come away disappointed. Much of the action unfolds in ruminative dialogue, during which Saul and Caprice wonder at their path forward in the world. Or they bicker with supporting characters, such as the mousy, earnest Timlin (Kristen Stewart) and the busybody Wippet (Don McKellar), two bureaucrats who record logs of unusual organs to try to chart humanity’s evolutionary journey.
Those eager, if persnickety characters seemingly represent the audience Cronenberg is wearily still looking to satisfy, even as he ponders the entertainment industry’s bleak horizons. One of the film’s nastier moments is its opening scene, in which a little boy takes bites out of a plastic garbage can. While Saul is busy growing organs, another subgroup has emerged that can eat only artificial matter. Saul is drawn to these folk, whom much of society scorns as monsters but whom he views as perhaps our species’ eventual final form. If Timlin and Wippet are nagging pencil pushers, the garbage-consuming creatures are a newer audience Saul and Cronenberg can barely understand, a true hybridization of our blood-and-guts past with a fully artificial future.
Still, Cronenberg isn’t too worried about making definitive statements on mankind’s devolution. Instead, he’s crafted a peculiar little requiem for outsider art, a peep into a world where even the strangest conceits can become blasé. It’s both a nightmare and a wan farce, the kind of tonal blend that only Cronenberg could create, and despite his cynicism about what awaits us, I hope he never stops thinking ahead.