The Austin Chronicle

Crimes of the Future

Rated R, 107 min. Directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, Kristen Stewart, Don McKellar, Scott Speedman, Welket Bungué, Yorgos Pirpassopoulos, Tanaya Beatty, Nadia Litz.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., June 3, 2022

It's been said that it's impossible for a David Cronenberg film to be boring. That position can only be taken if you've never endured the tedium of his ponderous 1970 sophomore release, Crimes of the Future, which plays like a humorless early John Waters film. Five decades later, it seems he's decided to overwrite its snail's-paced apocalypse with a completely new story with the same name.

New story, but not a completely new idea. In the 1970 film, there is a brief subplot about a character growing new organs, with a question about whether these growths are cancers or evolution in action. Extending that concept for his first intrusion back into the realm of body horror since 1999, Cronenberg picks up where he left off – for better or worse – with eXistenZ. What he spawns is inevitably fascinating, but also disjointed; disturbing, but at the same time somehow glacial.

"Cronenbergian" has become shorthand for a certain kind of gooey horror, an aesthetic of soft bone and taut sinew, of the body in rebellion. There's often the tragedy of the loss of humanity, but that's less dominant in his tale of two radical artists, Saul Tenser (Cronenberg regular Mortensen) and his lover and surgeon-turned-stage technician, Caprice (Seydoux). In a near future that looks like a rusting Adriatic port, the duo has achieved a strange cult status from Tenser's innards conspiring against him by producing new organs that Caprice removes through surgeries in front of an audience.

So far, so suitably grisly, and Crimes of the Future is not afraid to churn (or even surgically remove) a few stomachs. But after the narrative subtlety and psychological trauma of his post-millennium works like Eastern Promises and Cosmopolis, it almost feels like a step back. Take the bizarre furniture that's supposed to aid digestion, or the former automated autopsy bed that's now become their stage: It all looks cool, but it also looks so much like how you'd think a Cronenberg prop should look that it's almost a spoof of itself. That's a sensation not helped at all by the performances: not all, of course, as Seydoux brings the same kind of stylized panache as Deborah Kara Unger in Crash, while Mortensen yields a dark harvest as Tenser, an enigmatic figure in a hipster/monk habit who crouches in shadows. But Cronenberg's later work, his dark thrillers and psychodramas, were built around character, and Crimes uses the assembly of weirdos and transhumanists as props to make points. Speedman at least brings a degree of painted gravity as a cultist who welcomes the biological great leap forward, while Beatty and Litz bring wry fun as a pair of (bio)mechanics. Yet Stewart, as an obsessive bureaucrat, relies on a baffling bundle of tics and mannerisms in place of a clear character, which is a sin of which Crimes itself seems guilty at times: All the wound sex and bio-conspiracies and "X is the new Y" seems very Cronenbergian, but it also feels lacking.

Crimes is at its most intriguing when it focuses on its discussion of transgressive art and body modification (à la The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye) and its underlying questioning of authorial ownership and intent. There's something surprisingly playful in those moments, like the bored yawn at one avant-garde body modifier whose work is fine for the norms, but not those seeking true inner beauty. Crimes may lack the incisive wittiness of eXistenZ or the suppurating nightmares of The Fly, but even lesser Cronenbergian body horror is something to behold.

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