The last time David Cronenberg fiddled around with the new flesh in a sci-fi/horror context, he was delivering a typically warped commentary on our relationship with videogames with Existenz. That, however, was back in 1999 and since then the Canadian King of Venereal Horror (I never get bored of typing that phrase, by the way) had shifted his focus to placing his distinct themes in a string of edgey dramas and thrillers such as A History Of Violence, Eastern Promices and Maps To The Stars, seemingly leaving the exploding heads, tumor-esque wombs and various vaginal openings of his youth in his rearview as he forged ahead into less fantastical realms.
However, with Crimes Of The Future (named after his experimental early film that bears no other relation) Cronenberg has finally returned to genres that give him a licence to get really weird once more as erotic surgery, human evolution as some really weird ear placement signifies that we truly are in a strange new world.
After the constant pollution of our world, human beings are seemingly starting to evolve to deal with the changing environment and while most humans no longer feel physical pain or suffer from infectious diseases, others have taken to growing completely new organs that gives them the ability to digest inorganic materials – which is handy, I guess, considering Earth is now one big shithole. However, some so-called normal people dont regard these “mutants” as human at all and we see this first hand after a mother smothers her plastic eating son with a pillow and justifies her actions by declaring her child as merely a “thing”. This sets off a chain reaction that ultimately ensnares performance artist Saul Tenser and his partner Caprice who have been taking advantage of the former’s accelerated evolution sydrome by publicly removing the new vestigial organs Tenser grows in front of a live crowd who regularly fawn over their works. However, unknown to his adoring public, Saul is actually working undercover with a governmental police unit to keep an eye on any radical evolutionist movements who may be drawn to his subversive work and he’s eventually approached by Lang, a man who has voluntarily had his internal organs changed in order to be able to consume synthetic chemicals whose son, the child we saw murdered in the opening of the movie, apparently was proof that these changes are not only happening naturally, but could sway the public’s opinion against the governments negative views of this wild evolutionary change. Begging Saul and Caprice to perform an autopsy of his son for their next performance, Lang’s action sets off conspirital actions that bring into question what rights humans actually have when it comes to their own bodies.
So, it goes without saying that this latest offering from Cronenberg is incredibly odd, but those hoping for a return to the relentless, gooey, surrealism of his earlier stuff may need to check their expectations at the door. Yes, the famously taboo smashing auteur is back to overtly screwing around with the human form and yes, he deals out a fair bit of sexual perversion while he’s at it (Caprice unzipping Saul’s abdomen like a fanny pack in order to tongue his insides is hardly something you’d find in the Karma Sutra), but also present is the more deliberate style that featured in his later, more mature works. This marks Crimes Of The Future out as somewhat of a talky affair, but the ideas and concepts it comes armed with are fascinating enough to bridge the gaps between the various bouts of unsettling imagery. With a world virtually decaying around them, the fact that humankind is undergoing physical change to combat it allows Cronenberg to broach subjects like the very nature of what it means to be human and the lengths people will go to to keep an outmoded way of living alive simply to keep a chokehold on power. Similarly, having the main characters populate the art world allows the director to take a more thoughtful line of sight about the rights people have to tailor make their own bodies into the way they see fit and the fact that Saul’s surgical installations attract people from both sides of the human-or-not argument just goes to show how objective the art community can be, even when you’re popping out an extra internal organ to be a critical darling.
Of course, visually, Cronenberg is no slouch either as he offers up challenging sights such as a rival artist do a dance routine while his eyes and mouth are sewn up and he’s covered with extra ears (only for a critic to dismiss it offhand as being a bit too obvious) and Caprice getting visible aroused as she reclines in Saul’s automated operating table as he uses the toad-like remote to caress her with surgical scalpels.
The performances are great with Cronenberg regular Viggo Mortensen spending a lot of his time shuffling about in pain while wearing something from the Ringwrath summer range in a state of constant discomfort due to his extreme condition while Léa Seydoux enimates impossible glamour, even when she’s playing a real game of Operation on her partner or having decorative surgery performed on her own forehead. Yet it’s Kirsten Stewart who stands out the most as an employee of the bureaucratic National Organ Registry who is very excited to meet Saul (for obvious reasons) and plays her role like a buttoned down, nervy, yet impossible horny librarian who can barely hold herself together when discussing her views on mutant physiology and strange sexual kinks, which is evident by the overexcited way she blurts out “Surgery is the new sex!” and thus spelling out the movie’s main thrust.
Long term Cronenberg-ists may recognize some long standing echoes of the director’s work as Crimes Of The Future also proves to be something of a greatest hits package as he re-explores a few of his previous themes with similarly unsettling effect. Touching base on humans evolving extra squishy bits and the inevitable politics that follow screams
Videodrome, while people getting the raging horn over things that don’t tend to usually have that effect is highly reminiscent of his notorious crowd pleaser Crash; finally the weird kind of organic, fleshy/bone biotechnology that was previously seen in Existenz is also evident here as Saul’s bed plugs directly into his abdomen to aid him with his pain and his skeletal breakfast chair rocks him awkward to help him endure swallowing a simple meal.
It goes without saying that Crimes Of The Future won’t be for everyone and its method of setting up its numerous themes only for you to work out what it all means may frustrate fans of more emotionally simpler fare, but fans of Cronenberg should rejoice that he’s now entered yet another phase of his career that looks to blend his old, horror stuff and his newer, cerebral work to create a fittingly mutant offspring of both.
“I’m not very good at the old sex” gingerly confesses Mortensen’s Saul at one point, almost as if Cronenberg himself is apologising for his belated return to genre work. He needn’t have worried, as Crimes Of The Future contains enough head-fucking to make up for it.