In his five decades of filmmaking, David P. Cronenberg has often probed the appeal and importance of body modification in subversive and thrilling ways. In “Dead Ringers” (1988), a pair of sinister twins perform gynecological surgeries as twisted rituals. “eXistenZ” (1999) shows ordinary people getting their kicks in biosynthetic VR games, connecting through cable ports in their abdomens. In the more subtle “Eastern Promises” (2007), a Russian hitman forges his violent path through gangs with intricate tattoos. With these films and his others, Cronenberg’s storytelling is imbued with a powerful reverence for the body and the importance (or burden) it poses in the lives of its characters. On the cinematic screen, where the audience can only feel the visual echoes of pain, Cronenberg orchestrates grotesque injuries and shocking transformations in the service of art, conveying deeply human messages.
Cronenberg has this in common with the protagonist of his latest film, the 2022 Cannes Film Festival premiere “Crimes of the Future”, who literally does it: artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) performs operations on himself in front of the audience with the help of his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux). Saul goes about his own operations with the withdrawn curiosity of a cinema audience, without embarrassment; in the futuristic dystopia where the film is set, humans no longer feel pain. This is just one of the effects of Accelerated Evolution Syndrome, a widespread disease that causes the human body to transform from the inside out, triggering spontaneous organ growth, altering diets and, in some cases (as viewers will soon see), attempts to engineer evolution into new semi-synthetic forms.
As the film progresses, Saul encounters a host of shadowy characters trying to capitalize on (or hold back) this new stage of evolution, including secret government bureaucrats Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart) and biosynthesis-obsessed cult leader Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman). At the start of the story, it contains all the elements it needs to build the kind of jaw-dropping, mind-bending speculative drama that Cronenberg pioneered.
Unfortunately, “Crimes of the Future” never builds much: no meaning; not the dimensionality of the character; and certainly not the tense, imaginative atmosphere that makes Cronenberg’s earlier horror so gripping. Saul comes across as a caricature of a tortured artist, making his surgical performances superficially interesting as his body decays. The film presents its art form without too much commentary, and it feels like an underexplored gag (the man opens up to viewers!) rather than a rich thematic focus for the film. The cast of eclectic background characters is also one-dimensional, from the lazily drawn Saul devotee Caprice to the entertaining but over-the-top admirer Timlin. These characters could be engaging supports if the film’s central plot were more well-defined, interesting, or urgent. But instead, the film drags and jumps between characters, unwilling to commit to its identity as a thriller or a meditative portrayal of a dystopia. It doesn’t transcend either genre – it just has some of the strengths and all the problems of both, lacking in character complexity and narrative momentum as it attempts to present a poorly drawn dystopian world.
Don’t take these criticisms as skepticism about the power of body horror or Cronenberg’s ability to bridge genres brilliantly. On the contrary, his earlier films electrify with their deft defiance of genre conventions as he achieves dramatic depth, stunning romance, horror-movie subversion, and thrills all at once. But the potency of his earlier experiences has set the bar high for his return to horror, and “Crimes of the Future” feels like a pale imitation.
Although Cronenberg is once again teaming up with longtime production designer Carol Spier for the film, the sets feel cheap and deceptively theatrical compared to the visual worlds of his previous films, including the plastic-looking biosynthetic capsule in which Saul is sleeping. Flesh meets metal in a few of the creepy and classically Cronenbergian design touches, including the biosynthetic ports used throughout the film, the skeletal chair device Saul uses to eat, and the gelatinous operating technology he uses – but all of those elements feel absently familiar after “eXistenZ.” The film’s most interesting futuristic contraptions, namely the machines made of yellowed bones and grotesque orifices for synthetic flesh, already appeared in this film twenty-five years ago. And when Caprice licks Tenser’s abdominal wound in what’s supposed to be a shocking move, it’s an eerily direct recreation of Allegra’s psychosexual makeup with Ted’s bioport in the earlier film.
If the take on dystopia in ‘Crimes’ was more interesting, immersive, or populated with newer creative technology than it is, those similarities would be a nice tribute — but in the absence of an equally cinematic new world. engaging to get lost in, they just seem played. The film’s thematic superficiality makes its dull atmosphere all the more striking.
Overall, the film asks interesting questions about how medical technology, social norms, and the dissolving boundary between public and private life can combine to make body modification a lucrative form of entertainment. But in the end, viewers wonder exactly what the film is trying to say about humanity or the body, beyond the idea that people are fascinated by its deconstruction and will seek more intense transformation as our technology and our environment will change. These ideas were already evident in Cronenberg’s past work and in his career itself – after all, thousands of people flocked to the Cannes premiere of ‘Crimes’ to get their first glimpse of the stitched eyelids and torsos. opened by the master of body horror. But it turns out that this latest surgical spectacle tells us little about our world, current or future. Viewers better just rewatch “eXistenZ.”