Writing his first original script since eXistenZ (1999), David Cronenberg returns to his obsessions: does the human body exist to be blemished? Is it sex when the penetrated holes change? Are we still human when our bodies metamorphose beyond recognition? Crimes of the Future poses these questions in a future where new organs harvest in the human body, perhaps spontaneously. That’s the Cronenberg we love. Ridiculous in how deeply his characters inhabit his bat shit ideas, yet able to wring pathos from such tensions as surely as Douglas Sirk, he remains one of the most vital of directors. Crimes of the Future is second-tier Cronenberg yet at once essential. What a treat to watch a film interrogating what constitutes sexual pleasure and why we would want to munch on plastic.
The shadow world in which the film is set reflects the eroto-corporeal twilight they inhabit — a world of night, reminiscent of Marce Carné’s Port of Shadows. These people look like us, insofar as Viggo Mortensen has ever looked like anyone but a fallen god. He and Léa Seydoux play Saul Tenser and Caprice, for whom surgery is a performance. That is, Saul can grow organs, known casually as neo-organs, unrecognized by science. Out in public he scurries down alleys draped in what looks like a Jedi burnoose; at home, to feed his ailing digestive system, he straps himself to a swinging chair that looks like the dried remains of one of Naked Lunch‘s Mugwumps, one of the many tips of the hat to Cronenberg’s sardonic, sad 1991 fantasia on William Burroughs tropes. He draws the attention of Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart, speaking lines in a sustained sob), investigators for the National Organ Registry.
But Saul’s “accelerated evolution syndrome” isn’t the only derivation from the norm in this society. Crimes of the Future opens with a breathtaking sequence: a boy smothered to death by his mother after a scene in which he retreats into a bathroom to quietly much on a plastic bucket (Cronenberg inspires these kinds of sentences). The boy’s father, Lang (Scott Speedman), leads a group of so-called evolutionists who process the plastic into candy bars (again, shades of Naked Lunch‘s Mugwump jism plant). “We’ve gotta start feeding on our own industrial waste,” he says to Saul with a zealot’s passion.
To keep the characters and their mutations straight will consume some brain power in the first thirty minutes. Plotting isn’t Cronenberg’s strength; Crimes of the Future doesn’t end so much as throw its hands up; but more than forty years into an estimable career Cronenberg commands an audience that respects him as a writer-director prescient about the ways in which technology affects cognition and has reconfigured sexual attraction. There’s one beautifully eerie-erotic scene: a man covered in ears dancing to Howard Shore’s approximation of VIP room electronic music. Otherwise Cronenberg’s strengths include the crispness of his compositions and his ear for dialogue, which when said by the right actors crackles like the wings of a beetle (after three films Viggo Mortensen belongs in Cronenbergia). “You don’t know how hard it is to find a plastic surgeon who wants to make me less beautiful!” laments a guest at the — get this — Inner Beauty Pageant. “I’m not very good at the old sex,” Saul sighs after Timlin makes a traditional old pass at him.
The thing is, either line could’ve popped up in earlier Cronenberg films like Scanners and Videodrome. Like the debate about the neo-organs sprouting in Saul, these films inspired our cultural moment but were also created by them. Abjuring cheerfulness and a mere Good Time for forensic clarity, Crimes of the Future refracts our all-too-human need for order toward a techno-queer landscape which may also look like a dystopia. Cronenberg pleases nobody.