Cronenberg of the past, ‘Crimes of the Future’

It is time to stop seeing. It is time to stop speaking. It is time to listen. Images courtesy Neon.

In 2022, after more than a century of pumping carbon into the atmosphere at an industrial scale, the environment has fully turned against us. We’re still recovering from a new plague, wildfires have become an annual fact of life in parts of the world and, somehow quite separately, we’re running out of water. Total ecological collapse feels not just inevitable, but already in motion.

In David Cronenberg’s new psychological body horror/satire Crimes of the Future, the body is rapidly adapting to this new world. The plastic waste and toxic sludge we spent years pumping into the world are now, instead, inside of us. The reality of the climate crisis poses an obvious question – at what point will Earth no longer be Earth? In this film, the question on everyone’s lips is, at what point, how many changes can take place, before humans are no longer human?

Crimes of the Future shares a title with one of Cronenberg’s early works, but they’re saying it’s not a remake and the concept is unrelated, but also it absolutely is a remake –

Crimes of the Future (1970) is a 63-minute arthouse short film, and still one of my favorite works by Cronenberg. The film follows Adrian Tripod as he wanders a world in which a plague has killed off all sexually mature women. The despondent male population responds in several ways, but early in the film, Tripod outlines a phenomenon in which some men begin growing new organs with no identifiable function.

In Crimes of the Future (2022), humanity has evolved rapidly in several ways, but the widest spread change seems to be the almost complete disappearance of the physical sensation of pain. People have taken to stabbing each other and digging around in the wounds for pleasure – with the pain gone but the broader sense of feeling still intact, they can enjoy the glide of smooth steel against muscle and bone that would normally feel nothing at all, like boiling the alcohol out of rum in a reduction sauce to enjoy the wood and sweetness underneath. The film follows Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), who lives with accelerated evolution syndrome, which causes him to grow new organs with no identifiable purpose. Tenser’s romantic and performance partner, Caprice (Léa Seydoux), tattoos his organs while they are still inside him and removes them in public performances, after which they are displayed as art.

Tenser is one of the few humans who experiences pain, though this seems limited to only certain sources. Much more troubling is his difficulty swallowing, which is putting it mildly – Tenser struggles to speak, and his cough is so constant that it announces his presence before he sulks into a scene, distinctly reminiscent of Gollum.

If the original Crimes of the Future is the nightmare of a 27-year-old fresh out of college, this new picture is the same man having the same nightmare at 79 on the other side of a legendary film career. He started this project in 2003 under the title PainKillers but changed the title to overlap with a film he’d already made, so say “unrelated” all you want, this obviously wasn’t an accident.

Almost everything about Crimes of the Future, the conspicuously present-day “future” setting abandoned by a human race that seems to have just lost interest, is encapsulated in its opening shot, a long pull from a half-drowned cruise ship forgotten and left to rot. I was shaken to learn this is completely real. The Mediterranean Sky has laid on its side across from a Greek Orthodox church in Elefsina since 2003.

Outside of being explicitly tied to one of his first pictures, Crimes of the Future, his first release in eight years, is a synthesis of Cronenberg. It sees him return to the extreme fears about transhumanism and the ways media alters the consumer, which run throughout his work but are most easily viewed in Videodrome, and also to the hateful pop-cultural satire of Maps to the Stars and the half-insane cloak-and-dagger of Naked Lunch. There are also several returning effects – the digestive goop of The Fly is back, as are the sexualized scars of Crash and the torso anuses of eXistenZ. Caprice’s beetle-like remote control seems modeled after Naked Lunch’s typewriters, and we’ve even got some recycled terminology – Videodrome’s “new flesh” is back as “new sex,” and his prior films’ sinister governmental entities like the Institute for Neo-Venereal Disease, ConSec and Interzone return as the National Organ Registry and the New Vice Unit.

Here at the tail end of his career, Crimes of the Future is probably the clearest and most concise expression of those fears, with many of the film’s plot points driven by concerns about what is and is not a human – though this is pointedly never posed as a question. Characters take action, then justify themselves with underlying assumptions about the boundaries of humanity. These competing concepts of who we are and can be are the main points of tension.

There are obvious political parallels with the government of this far-flung future still dictating what can and cannot be done with the human body – Cronenberg has talked about the movie as a metaphor for anti-trans legislation, and obviously now with abortion rights no longer protected federally and the right to recreational sex in the crosshairs – but this movie isn’t about Christian nationalists. It’s a much more honest and introspective investigation of the relationship between body and identity, the interplay between what you are and who you are and what you can control about either of those things.

On the other hand, Crimes of the Future is very silly, increasingly so as it goes on. There are only two surgical performances in the film, and they get the first one out of the way quickly, so the main thrust quickly shifts to being about the dialogue of these surgeries as performances, both as Tenser and Caprice prepare for their next show and the critical evaluation of these performances. There’s never a conversation about whether or not the guy with the weird number of ears is OK, only an evaluation of his performance, which is dismissed as inauthentic for reasons that are obvious to a real-world audience.

Contrarily, Tenser’s and Caprice’s performances are hailed as revolutionary and daring, particularly Tenser’s work of growing the organs. The film pays particular focus to ethereal criticisms like whether or not a work is “meaningful” and discussion of Tenser’s artistic intent, discussion that is absurd to Tenser – his works literally grow inside of him without his knowledge. His only motivation seems to be the intense sexual pleasure he takes in their examination and extraction.

Crimes of the Future’s sharpest point is toward Ears McGoo (Tassos Karahalios). Central to the film’s marketing, he’s a one-off gag character, a body-horror reaction to the performative sensitivity of the #metoo movement who is almost immediately relegated to the background of his own scene.

More interesting as what happens in Crimes of the Future is where and when it happens – it doesn’t appear to be the future at all. Onscreen phone and television technology put it in the early ‘80s, not a flatscreen or “mobile device” in sight, and it’s hard to see it as somewhere so far-distant that the internet has come and gone without any type of replacement.

In fact, the movie doesn’t appear to have a past. In the only performance we get to see, Tenser’s torso is torn in half and cauterized back together, leaving a prominent scar for the rest of the film, and despite apparently being so famous he has to walk around in a cloak and facemask like a vampire strolling in the daylight and is frequently recognized even then, he doesn’t have any other scars from prior performances. This contradiction spirals out into the background as well. Despite surgical modification functioning as the new fashion and people stabbing each other on the street as a sex act, none of the background characters have any scars, and Caprice, who should be on the cutting edge of this world’s fashion, gets her first body modifications within the runtime. Tenser, similarly, ought to be at the center of the political movements arising from neo organs and surgical performance, but he seems surprised to learn they exist. When they have sex, Caprice and Tenser carve each other’s legs and arms, but when the camera savors over Caprice before the act, her body is unmarked, almost nubile.

It is deliberately unclear where Crimes of the Future is set, even though the setting is most of the story. It isn’t Athens, where the film was mostly shot – everyone’s white and speaks English with mostly American accents – and it is not Toronto, where Cronenberg has lived his entire life and frequently sets his films – the abandoned shipyards are home to massive steamers, much bigger than would be built on Lake Ontario. No transportation of any kind is seen in the movie, a handful of scenes take place in an abandoned shipyard and multiple government headquarters are present, so we know it’s a seat of political power and a dense port city, probably on the East Coast south of Canada, since Caprice is the only person with a French accent, and not far enough south that we get into the swampland – that leaves Boston and Providence, Rhode Island as the most likely candidates.  

Despite the New Vice Unit and newly formed National Organ Registry playing into the plot, there doesn’t seem to be much of a government to speak of. The narrow streets are covered in graffiti and mostly abandoned, with the exception of random couples not-really hidden in alleys digging around in each other’s flesh. The underground surgery performances are packed and so popular they shape the local culture, but no one is ever out front of these venues having a smoke or getting some air. The world is empty and dead, as if it were abandoned halfway through its lifespan, despite being filled with people.

This feeling extends to Tenser and Caprice’s cavernous, serpentine, flesh-colored home in which every piece of furniture seems to have its own otherwise barren room, like they live in a walk-through diorama of some alien digestive system. Every shot of them in their home has so much negative space, with the walls usually outside the frame, that I’m always waiting for someone to walk in on them. There’s no discernable difference between the filth-caked emptiness of the outer streets and what we see inside.

I don’t like what’s happening with the body, in particular what’s happening with my body. That’s why I keep cutting it up.

In the wake of 9/11, there’s been an overwhelming trend in movies toward integrating their premises into the real world, building bridges between fantasy and reality, usually paired with the post-9/11 obsession with outlining the U.S. military’s reaction to any given plot, best observed in Batman Begins, Transformers and Iron Man. Pictures that avoid this trend, either total fantasies like Annihilation or fiction based in the runaway military mindset like Ad Astra, are many of the best of this era.

Maybe the darkest thing about Crimes of the Future is the way it calls direct attention to its own impossibility. The film plows right into the physical consequences of its premise – Caprice detects new organs by monitoring Tenser’s blood for unidentified hormones, for instance. It’s visceral, not just visually but conceptually. You don’t imagine the possibilities, you feel the horrifying complications in your gut. Rather than saying “it’s just a movie,” the offshooting consequences of this evil fantasy are strewn haphazardly about the foreground of conversations like every other part of the set. Crimes of the Future barely has a plot, but the narrative direction it does have is toward more detailed discussion of these consequences and Tenser’s increasing discomfort with them. Eventually, a man who routinely grows fully formed organs begins to protest the impossibility of what he’s seeing and hearing.

Even within the movie world, it’s all impossible, but it’s all happening anyway.

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