Crimes of the Future has been touted as David Cronenberg's return to body horror, with comparisons to earlier work like Videodrome, Scanners, and eXistenZ dominating the conversation. It's easy to see why: his newest film penetrates the flesh of humanity in a near future in which our organs no longer play by the rules, as if evolution is wreaking vengeance for our attempted tyranny over the natural world. The main axiom of Videodrome, "long live the new flesh," might actually be better applied to Crimes of the Future, in which the new flesh that has started spreading within us is perfectly suited to an industrial wasteland of the 21st century. Just as compelling as these connections to Cronenberg's past work, though, are the more implicit echoes that are less consumed with bodily trauma: for example, the grimy minimalism of Shivers (1975), the clinical non-sexuality of Dead Ringers (1988), the literariness of Naked Lunch (1991). Whether intentional or not, Crimes of the Future plays like a self-referential endpoint for Cronenberg's favorite thematic and formal motifs, uniquely updated for the 2020s and its discussions of climate change and bodily autonomy. How strange it is, then, that it also ends up being one of Cronenberg's most guardedly hopeful films.
That may seem like an odd thing to say about a movie in which the first scene depicts a woman named Djuna (Lihi Kornowski) smothering her eight-year-old son to death. The boy, Brecken (Sozos Sotiris), had developed a bodily abnormality in which he could only eat and digest plastics, which leads Djuna to believe that he's an inhuman creature, though in fact it's only one of several advances (or breakdowns) in physiology that have occurred in this indiscriminate time and place. More prevalent is the inability for humans to feel pain or contract disease, which leads to public surgeries executed by those who have no training in medical procedures.
Two practitioners of this surgical exhibitionism are Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and his creative partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux), who have become revered as performance artists. They hold art shows in eviscerated warehouses in which Caprice cuts into Saul, tattoos his organs, and removes them using an automated machine called a Sark, which had been used as a device for autopsies until it was co-opted by artists like Saul and Caprice. (The Sark is manufactured by the multinational Life Force Corporation, which parallels the ominous Biocarbon Amalgamate company from 1981's Scanners. Cronenberg has always had a healthy distrust for the corporations that represent global capitalism, particularly how they intersect with political and military institutions.) Saul and Caprice's show is both silly and provocative, which could define Crimes of the Future as a whole, but you have to admire its willingness to appear ridiculous for the sake of its commitment to its ideas.
One of the central questions to Saul and Caprice's performance is who is actually the artist and who the subject. Saul lies prostrate in his Sark cocoon (which, thanks to production designer Carol Spier, harkens back to the alien-like constructions in Naked Lunch or eXistenZ) while Caprice operates a small device that looks like a tumor-ridden frog with computerized nodules all over its body. It's this small device that operates the scalpels and saws on the surgical machine, which Caprice commandeers with uncanny precision. But Saul's organs are the raw material that comprise the artwork, and some of the duo's fans hypothesize that Saul (like others who grow vestigial viscera) is able to do so out of sheer willpower, forcing the new organs to grow inside of him. A more apt metaphor might suggest Caprice as the director and Saul as the actor, flipping the gender dynamics of Crimes of the Future's real-world production circumstances.
Cronenberg is obviously well aware of the power dynamics of a male director working with female actors, especially since accusations of misogyny have been leveled against his films in the past, particularly with The Brood (1979), Dead Ringers, and Crash (1995). (In fact, the recently resurfaced video from Crash's Cannes press conference in which James Spader explains the geography of fucking is somewhat relevant in this regard.) In those films, and with the character of Djuna in Crimes of the Future, women are (debatably) seen as treacherous or destructive, perpetually indecipherable to their male counterparts. I don't think such accusations are totally fair: Cronenberg is pessimistic about the ability to fully know any other human being regardless of gender, and those films are partially about the intersections of sex and (emotional or physical) pain, which makes male-female hostility something of an inevitability (in a heteronormative context). The relationship between Saul and Caprice in Crimes of the Future seems almost like an acknowledgement and reversal of such power dynamics, but Cronenberg also posits that such hierarchies shift all the time: actors exert control over the film, women wrest power away from the men who privilege from their position, the dominant party in a relationship becomes subservient, sadist becomes masochist, and so on. In short, the relationship between Saul and Caprice, which is both sexual and asexual, is a microcosm for how Cronenberg envisions the exchange of power in any human interaction.
This parallels the film's discussion of bodily autonomy, which could hardly be more urgent at a time when women's right to a safe abortion is seriously imperiled. Saul and Caprice meet with government bureaucrats who are in charge of the National Organ Registry, a state entity tasked with cataloguing the new organs that have started appearing in bodies. These bureaucrats – Timlin (Kristen Stewart), a nervy woman who becomes enamored with Saul's artful aberrations; and Wippet (Don McKellar), who reveals that he's leading an underground "inner beauty pageant" (one of the movie's more awkward examples of mordant humor) – are responsible for keeping tabs on humanity's wayward evolution, though both of them are revealed to be working against the government's interests.
The film's increasingly convoluted cast of characters also includes Detective Cope (Welket Bungué), for whom Saul starts working undercover for unclear reasons; two assassins for the Life Force Corporation, who appear to cover up the truth about the real origins of these bodily transformations; and an activist named Lang (Scott Speedman), the father of the murdered boy, who leads a rebellious faction that believes this newest form of evolution is a natural occurrence, not a horror to be criminalized. Especially early in his career, many of Cronenberg's plots were pitched between artful philosophy and pulpy genre thrills, and Crimes of the Future reiterates that sometimes turbulent blend. There are shady murders, ominous organizations, nefarious agents, dark conspiracies, none of which are really elucidated by the film.
Whether or not that's a flaw depends on your willingness to view the messy plot primarily as a vehicle for Cronenberg's thematic concerns. Foremost among those concerns is whether the characters in Crimes of the Future have the right to do whatever they please with the deviant flesh inside their own body, which is how the question of autonomy is posed. Saul and Caprice decide to use their bodies as creative endeavors: a palette for all kinds of artful expression, like the decorative blisters that Caprice decides to add to her brow. Timlin, Saul, and Caprice (not to mention most of the punk-looking extras we see populating this world) derive sexual pleasure from bodily abnormality, like the scene in which Caprice tongues an open slit in Saul's belly (which is maybe a little too reminiscent of the vaginal gash in James Woods' torso in Videodrome). The National Organ Registry and Life Force Corporation see the human body as an opportunity for control, an expression of biopolitics with which Foucault would have a field day. And Lang and his freedom fighters believe that deviation from the norm is in fact the most natural thing of all: evolutionary biology, a way for humans to adapt to the world of deprivation and fragility we've built for ourselves. It's not hard to extend Cronenberg's gruesome motifs into a larger commentary on how modern civilization can respond to increasingly dire pressures on our health (and the planet's survival): through art, through politics, through resistance, through sensory pleasure. And that theme feels urgent regardless of how overly familiar much of Crimes of the Future may seem.
Despite the reputation that the movie has already garnered for reverting back to Cronenberg's body-horror origins, that's not exactly true: shock extremity isn't Crimes of the Future's main priority. Orgiastic beds and bodily mutilation notwithstanding, the film is like an essay on how politics, art, and the body converge in our anthropocene era, when the question of how we can salvage not only our future but our sense of liberty has become dire. One of the most shocking things about Crimes of the Future is that it's not totally hopeless in that regard; in fact, it ends with an image of ecstasy, with a character beginning to understand that their true self is in the bodily freedom and nonconformity that they've felt pressured to deny themselves.
Part of that surprising sense of optimism has to do with the visual tone: for the first time since 1988's Dead Ringers, Cronenberg didn't work with cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, as Crimes of the Future was digitally shot by Douglas Koch. The images at times are reminiscent of the careful compositions of Pedro Costa's recent work, with even lighting and a remarkable sense of texture (you feel like you can run your hands down the pockmarked surfaces of the dilapidated walls). But it also seems as if Cronenberg as a screenwriter challenged himself to defy expectations even as he references so many elements of his past work; his dialogue is pointedly absurd, at times cringe-inducingly punny, and the film as a whole seeks to avoid the dystopian bleakness that its futuristic setting would suggest, even with all the morbidity.
Crimes of the Future is flawed and awkward, and its narrative doesn't convey its firestorm of ideas as successfully as it could have. But it's the kind of movie whose weaknesses make it far more fascinating, reflecting an ambivalent era in which guarded hope struggles against rampant evidence of its futility. In the face of such a discouraging world, radical hope is really the only alternative, at least if we want to retain a sense of what makes humanity unique. Cronenberg's latest film really puts the radical in radical hope. If we think we know how this cinematic body is going to function from the outset, it continues to grow new tissues and organs to become a totally strange, discomfiting creature.