What does it mean to be human? It seems like a simple question. You know a human when you see one. A great ape shares 99 percent of their DNA with humans, but they aren’t human. We are related by distant ancestors in the tree of life but branched off from that line a very long time ago. There were other, early versions of humans like Neanderthals, australopithecines, homo habilis, homo erectus and more. There’s evidence in our DNA of homo sapiens and Neanderthals interbreeding some 40,000 years ago. Were these offspring humans or something else? There are scientific answers to these questions, then there are emotional conclusions some of us draw. Racists like to focus their hate of religious, ethnic or racial groups they see as inhuman. Their hate doesn’t make any sense as every human is the same on the inside. However, what if, in some distant future, we begin changing. We start to grow new, heretofore unknown organs. Mysterious growths that aren’t tumors but have no apparent function. Are these people human? That’s one of the questions asked by writer director David Cronenberg in his new film “Crimes of the Future.”
Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) grows new, unknown organs in his weak, sickly body for no apparent reason and he’s not the only one. The condition is known as Accelerated Evolution Syndrome. Tenser has turned this unusual ability into performance art. His performance partner Caprice (Lea Seydoux) operates a futuristic operating bed and removes the organs in front of large groups of enthralled fans. Humanity has evolved to feel no pain and body modification has become a new art form. A new government agency tracks and registers anyone with these random mutations to protect humanity from whatever these people are. Tenser and Caprice meet with representatives of this agency, Wippet and Timlin (Don McKellar and Kristen Stewart). Timlin seems to be most attracted to Tenser and Caprice’s performances as she sees surgery as the new version of sex. No one knows that Tenser is working undercover with Detective Cope (Welket Bungué) who works in the New Vice department. A separatist group thinks this evolution should be embraced and encouraged. The leader Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman), along with other members, have undergone extensive surgery allowing them to consume and digest plastics processed into purple bars. Dotrice has a son that was born with this ability, but he was murdered by his ex-wife. Dotrice wants Tenser and Caprice to perform a public autopsy on the boy to show the world the future of human evolution.
“Crimes of the Future” is just plain weird. It starts weird, it continues weird, and it ends weird. Cronenberg is known for his “body horror” films like “Scanners,” “Videodrome” and “The Fly,” along with his violent films starring Viggo Mortensen, “Eastern Promises” and “A History of Violence.” There’s always more going on in a Cronenberg film than it seems and the same is true for “Crimes of the Future.” It asks difficult questions about what it means to be human, how we judge others’ differences and to what extent are we willing to go for individualism. I’m sure there are more themes and questions I’m not smart enough to see, but I wonder if Cronenberg doesn’t bury his meanings under so much gore and shock we can’t recognize there’s more going on.
The performances by Mortensen, Seydoux and Stewart are mesmerizing. Mortensen, constantly cloaked in black, usually with his face covered, looking pale and frequently coughing, clearing his throat or choking, is playing a man in a changing world, attempting to stay one step ahead of the government, the police and the separatists. He sees himself, and others see him, as an artist, sharing his mutations with a world hungry for experiences outside the norm. Mortensen takes this character seriously. No matter who he’s talking to, Tenser holds his ground, making it clear he believes in what he’s doing. That makes his reports to Detective Cope odd. It’s outside what he espouses to Caprice and others in the performance art world. He’s a character of contradictions, but we believe and accept them.
Seydoux’s Caprice is Tenser’s equal partner. They create the art together, each unable to do it without the other, like a painter and his brush and paints or a sculptor his medium. Seydoux is beautiful and delicate, yet strong as steel. Caprice is both caretaker and manager for Tenser. She takes care of the technical side as Tenser grows the source for their art. Seydoux does a great deal with few scenes where she’s the focus.
Kristen Stewart is brilliant as Timlin. She’s all quirk and nervousness as Timlin is introduced to Tenser. She’s obviously fascinated by him and Caprice, apparently wanting to join the duo in some way. Stewart sucks up all the attention when she’s on screen. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Stewart always looks to be on the verge of exploding or acting violently, yet never letting herself. The audience wonders what’s percolating in her brain to give her such nervous energy. Is she uncomfortable in public settings or meeting new people? Is she enamored with the underground body modification scene but feels she can’t allow herself to take part? All these questions bubble up around Timlin. Sadly, none are answered.
The same can be said for the story. Questions are put forth, like why are people spouting new organs? Why is the government keeping track of those that do? What do they fear? I know it’s not every movie’s purpose to explain why things happen within the story. But “Crimes of the Future” never offers any explanation for anything. A few theories would have been appreciated, but Cronenberg doesn’t seem interested in providing any, just posing the question. Perhaps this is the point as there are no concrete answers for why we are the way we are, other than the generic “evolution.” There are theories that have some scientific basis, but we’ll never know for sure. The same can be said for “Crimes of the Future.”
“Crimes of the Future” is rated R for strong disturbing violent content and grisly images, graphic nudity and some language. A young boy is smothered to death with a pillow by his mother. Medical procedures are carried out on screen several times, some very graphic showing the cutting of flesh and removal of organs. A couple appears to have a sexual reaction to being cut by automated scalpels. A naked boy is shown having an autopsy. A man is shown with a wound in his head and blood dripping after being murdered. Another murder is shown as a character has two power drills bored into his head. Through the film we see three women fully nude and the corpse of a nude boy. Foul language is scattered.
This is the second film written and directed by David Cronenberg with the title “Crimes of the Future.” The first was in 1970 and the plot shares similar aspects with his new film. There are other similarities with other Cronenberg films, like the organic looking nature of some machinery in “Crimes of the Future” and “eXistenZ,” and the questioning of what makes humanity and is it a threat as in “Scanners.” I wonder is Cronenberg’s unique visual style may get in the way of his storytelling. While “Crimes of the Future” is interesting to watch, I don’t feel like I got much from it.
“Crimes of the Future” gets three stars out of five.
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