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Crimes of the Future Review: A Body Horror Freak-Out That’s Juicy with Meaning

Mark Hanson

Physically and psychically glued as we’ve become to all manner of computers, the image of a Betamax tape being inserted into James Woods’s abdomen in Videodrome seems almost quaint now. Forty years after that penetration, director David Cronenberg brings us Crimes of the Future, his first foray into body horror since 1999’s eXistenZ, imagining a world where the new flesh is evolving to adapt to humanity’s self-destructive tendencies.

In a futuristic urban dystopia, humans with Accelerated Evolution Syndrome are sprouting strange new organs. Pain and infection are things of the past, while “surgery is the new sex” has become the rallying cry of a community of rebellious celebrity performance artists who enact a variety of body modification exhibitions for their rapt audiences. Through this landscape stalks a sickly, black-clad performer named Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), who suggests a vampire trying to evade the few slivers of light piercing through eternally gloomy skies. For his own act, Saul’s partner, Caprice (Léa Seydoux), conducts live operations to remove the myriad organs that are constantly growing within him.

At first, Crimes of the Future plays like a collection of Cronenberg’s greatest hits, from the Crash-like air of illicit excitement that characterizes Saul and Caprice’s performances to all the anachronistic tech that recalls Videodrome’s Marshall McLuhan-inspired hellscape. Tube TVs display mottos like “Body Is Reality,” and gooey grotesqueries abound, from sarcophagus-like operating pods to the organic furniture pieces that aid Saul with his various ailments. “I think this bed needs new software,” he dryly states at one point in reference to his undulating flesh blob of a sleeping apparatus, which suggests a hallucination out of Naked Lunch.

Perhaps inevitably, shadowy bureaucratic forces are also waging war behind the scenes in Crimes of the Future, deterring anyone from embracing their newfound evolutionary possibilities. Saul and Caprice become tied up with Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart), two eager agents from the restrictive National Organ Registry, who quickly become enraptured by the performance surgery scene. But it’s the tantalizing immediacy of the storyline involving an anarchist named Lang Daughtery (Scott Speedman) that makes it impossible to write off the film as a show of fan service.

Skulking around in the background at Saul and Caprice’s shows and obsessively munching on a mysterious energy bar that proves fatal to most others who consume it, Daughtery initially comes off as villainous. But upon approaching Saul and Caprice with an idea for a new show, in which the two performers will conduct an autopsy on the corpse of his young son, it’s gradually revealed that he may be nothing less than a messiah for the entire human race. Daughtery subsequently becomes the catalyst for Cronenberg’s headfirst plunge into allegorical science fiction. It’s here that Crimes of the Future reveals itself, through its vision of humans adapting to worldwide technological devastation by developing digestive systems for exclusively synthetic diets, as a parable of environmental degradation’s costs.

The film is a variation on themes and ideas that have run through Cronenberg’s other work, but however bleak its vision of the world’s fate may be, the filmmaker stares upon a people’s need to evolve toward some kind of survival with a strikingly serene, almost godlike assurance. At its most stinging, Crimes of the Future is quick to indict a modern society staunchly afraid of the progressive notions necessary for any kind of evolution to even be possible.

That said, for a filmmaker known for bestowing a radical potential on humanity, Crimes of the Future, as bizarre as it is on the surface, can feel conservative in ways that don’t quite sync up with its future vision. Bodies here have evolved beyond sex but, it would seem, not beyond certain sexual norms. The female characters are far more willing to shed their clothes as sexual objects than the men, which is almost odd given the populace’s capacity for evolved consciousness. And considering the nonconforming views that distinguish the rogue underground types milling about, the film is almost conspicuous for its lack of queerness.

If all of the world-building here doesn’t always snap together as vigorously and perfectly as it has in Cronenberg’s best work, Crimes of the Future does still feel like a galvanizing reset that harkens back to the potent rush of his earliest feature film experiments, including his unrelated 1970 film of the same name, in which he was already working through rich, provocative ideas in playfully exploratory ways. Crimes of the Future proves that Cronenberg remains attuned to the concerns of the present. Nodding to Videodrome’s prescient mantra, “Long live the new flesh,” this film seductively posits that any continued allegiance to the old flesh is a selfish, foolhardy impediment to a sustainable way forward.

Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, Kristen Stewart, Scott Speedman, Welket Bungué, Don McKellar, Yorgos Pirpassopoulos, Tanaya Beatty, Nadia Litz, Lihi Kornowski, Denise Capezza Director: David Cronenberg Screenwriter: David Cronenberg Distributor: Neon Running Time: 107 min Rating: R Year: 2022

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