Hey Kweens and Kings. It’s time to talk about Crimes of the Future.
Crimes of the Future is a body horror film written and directed by David Cronenberg. Cronenberg is one of the pioneers of the body horror genre, but he has not made a film in the genre for over arguably 20 years. The closest comparison is his 1996 film Crash, a film about a man who becomes sexually aroused by car accidents – not to be confused with the 2004’s best picture drama about racism. In fact, Cronenberg hasn’t been working in general for almost a decade. His last film was Maps to the Stars in 2014 and even at that point he wasn’t writing his films anymore. I think many of us had to accept Cronenberg’s time as a filmmaker had come to an end, but now out of nowhere is Crimes of the Future. I really loved this film and I think it is arguably his best work.
There are two things I want to talk about with this film. I want to talk about its excellent art direction – or potentially direction in general – and I want to talk about its novel subject material.
David Cronenberg is nearly 80 years old, and he has had a prolific career, but he is most known for the midpoint of his career where he made many contributions to the body horror genre. His version of body horror has been described as focusing on the fragility of the human mind and connecting that to the fragility of the human body. He often derives the thrills in his films from traumatizing depictions of gore, mutilation and death. Perhaps the most known example of Cronenberg’s work is 1986’s The Fly. That film hit at the perfect time and place and was about a scientist who conducts an experiment on himself that goes wrong – resulting in his DNA combining with a fly. This character’s lifespan shrinks dramatically and we watch as his body quickly decomposes like a fly would if it lived for more than a few days. The Fly is just one of many iconic Cronenberg films, including Scanners, Videodrome, and Dead Ringers. All of these films Cronenberg wrote and directed and they remain his most cherished and beloved films – if you can use such an adjective to describe this type of work.
At some point Cronenberg stopped writing his films and entered a lull in his career. He stopped doing body horror but had a brief resurgence when he released three different dramas starring Viggo Mortensen. This started with 2005’s A History of Violence and continued with Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method. While these films were not like Cronenberg’s earlier work, they were still very competently made films that excelled at making the audience uncomfortable. A History of Violence is a story about mistaken identity that slowly suggests maybe the main character isn’t who you think they are. Eastern Promises has one of the most uncomfortable fight scenes in film history, but probably not for the reason you’re thinking. Both of those films are great, so I recommend you check them out if you don’t know what I’m talking about.
The point is Cronenberg has not made a film for almost a decade. In fact, there was some speculation his son – Brandon Cronenberg – would be taking up the mantel of body horror director, after the success of 2020’s Possessor – although personally I wasn’t super impressed with that film. Crimes of the Future really came out of nowhere, but it is a return to form for the storied director. This is an entirely new project, although it shares the name with his very first film however the two projects share no similarities beyond the name.
Crimes of the Future is best experienced with minimal information, so I will say here if you have any interest in the film – I encourage you to check it out. If you’d like a bit more information, I’ll give a brief premise here.
As the title suggests, Crimes of the Future is set in a near future where society has eliminated the biological function of “pain.” This is due to an innovation in technology that nurses human beings in their sleep. As a result of the elimination of pain, new novelties are derived from experimentation with the human body. The film centers on two performance artists – played by Viggo Mortensen and Lea Seydoux – who perform live surgery in front of crowds as a type of artistic performance. This is possible because Mortensen’s character has a defect where he grows excess organs that can be regularly removed at no risk to his mortality. This performance art attracts the attention of a police unit dedicated to targeting groups who perform evolutionary degeneracy, and it also attracts a mysterious individual who seems to be interested in collaborating with the main characters for his own version of performance art.
Cronenberg has conceived some of the most iconic imagery in cinema history, so it is no surprise the art direction of this film is so strong, but I don’t believe he’s ever accomplished something as cohesive as Crimes of the Future. Since this film is set in a fictional near future – rather than the modern day – Cronenberg has granted himself creative control over every aspect of the cinematic world. He is not beholden to any contemporary expectations and sure enough he has tweaked every piece of the art design to look grotesque. Even familiar objects like video cameras or cell phones have been modified to look foreign and strange. It is remarkable how consistently the world of Crimes of the Future embodies the phrase “abomination.”
Much of this feeling of revulsion for the world is accomplished through the set design. Our first introduction to the world is through a minor character’s household which looks dilapidated and abandoned, despite being set in a coastal location that should otherwise be idyllic. Not even the presence of an oceanic vista and calming breeze takes away from the discomfort we feel from the musty rooms with broken plumbing and stained wallpaper. This look isn’t exclusive to the opening scene. All of the environments in Crimes of the Future look like a cityscape that’s been rotting for years. Every room is made out of concrete, often accentuated by water stains or some other texture expressing these locations have been worn down from years of neglect. I don’t think there was a single color for any of the environments other than brown, gray, or yellow/green. It is a remarkably ugly world.
This look of unnerving disgust extends from the set design to the prop design – specifically the depiction of the technology that prevents people from feeling pain. This technology is available in the form of beds and chairs that were originally designed to aid during autopsies but have been redeployed as consumer-facing furniture with the added functionality of biologically connecting to your body and nursing pain receptors to prevent any discomfort for the user. The fact this equipment looks the way it does, should be viewed as an intentional artistic decision by Cronenberg as a way to convey his intended interpretation of this technology. You can – right now – imagine a magical scientific device that heals you when you sleep in it. You might envision some classic science fiction imagery. Perhaps it is an enclosed pod like you might find on a spaceship where the crew can go into cryostasis for an extended period of time. Or maybe it is a clean-looking glass slab that exudes futuristic innovation through its design. Whatever you may be thinking, it probably doesn’t look like what we see in the movie. This technology looks like the discarded limbs of an insectoid extraterrestrial cobbled together into a crude chair. These devices resemble the facehugger from Alien and share the same puke green/yellow color palette. To make things even worse, these machines actively respond to its users, so not only do they look creepy but their bony appendages sway with the user. Again, I would use the term “abomination” to describe the aesthetic of these devices. The fact these devices are what allow for widespread self-mutilation without consequence, should really drive the point that this technology is not something to be celebrated.
I’m always impressed when a director has a vision for their film that includes every component of the visual aesthetic. Especially when the film is small scale and doesn’t necessarily “need” to invest in its aesthetics. When you watch a multi hundred-million-dollar fantasy film, you anticipate they’ll shell out for elaborate set design – often aided by green screens. Crimes of the Future is clearly shot in real life locations, but it maintains a consistent art direction that makes this real life feel distant from reality.
What is especially impressive about the direction in Crimes of the Future is the consistency of the actors’ performances. People who watch my content know, I am hesitant to give actors credit for anything. So let me clarify, I am not simply saying these actors are consistently good at acting in this film. The consistency is the sense that every character is a whisper away from true derangement. I thought this was an appropriate direction for the cast because the world of Crimes of the Future is deranged. It’s a setting where the ultra-wealthy pay for art exhibitions of live surgery and cut into their own flesh to the bone to satisfy their need for novelty. Everybody in this world is under the spell of a mass psychosis brought about by a scientific innovation that has decayed our humanity. Some reviewers have summed up the performances as every actor whispering to one another, but I think it’s more than a line delivery gimmick. This is a world that is actively exploring all taboos relating to body mutilation and evolutionary incentives for life. In their explorations, there is a sense of thrill combined with a biologically ingrained hesitancy to seek out these explorations too gleefully. It is appropriate all the characters sound as if they are telling each other a secret, because that is the tone of the entire world. Everyone is at the precipice of the unknown and they’re not certain where they should stop – if at all. All of the cast does this in their own way and they are all very good, but I have to give special credit to Kirsten Stewart. I haven’t seen some of her recent work so I may be late to the game here, but it’s hard to believe this is the same actor who was a punchline for her work on Twilight but here she is wholly convincing in this role. She is perhaps the character who best fits the world of Crimes of the Future.
Novel subject material
I led with talking about the aesthetics of this film, because I think once you understand how this world is portrayed to the audience it becomes clearer how we are supposed to respond to the subject material it depicts. At the center of Crimes of the Future is this timeless question of if technology has gone too far. For what it’s worth, this is a consistent theme across all of Cronenberg’s work though it may not be the point it tries to land on – it’s more of an ancillary point on the way somewhere else. Crimes of the Future is so successful at provoking the audience’s sentiments on when things have gone too far, because it pokes at the very popular cultural sentiment of irreverence for how things used to be. I don’t want to politicize this point with examples, but I think it is fair to say that very few people today are convinced by the argument that anything should be a certain way because “that’s how it’s always been.” However, Cronenberg poses an extremely challenging counter to that irreverence through the depiction of a world that eliminates pain and how quickly it leads to self-harm, exhibitionism, and sexual perversion.
In a vacuum, you can imagine a world without pain may have some benefits to it. This story could’ve been set in a cancer ward, showcasing how patients have far more success recovering because the lack of pain relinquishes their psyche from stress so their body can fight the disease more competently. Maybe that’s not the best example, but it would not be difficult to envision a scenario where the technology was more of a blessing, but instead we are deeply submerged in a world that feels cursed.
Again, this is accentuated by the artistic direction. It was an intentional creative choice to portray the world as an abomination. There is a reason all the actors sound unhinged. It’s also not an accident that there’s no wholly positive portrayal of this technology. This is why I interpreted this film as a warning for what might happen to our species if we allow for the literal and figurative mutilation of our own bodies. Some have suggested this plot point can be applied to the prevalence of micro plastics – but for some reason I doubt that’s what Cronenberg had in mind. Others have suggested this film intends to portray this variant of transhumanism as a good thing. I would challenge people to find an argument that incorporates the idea “self-harm is good, actually.” But I don’t have to pose that challenge because a lot of the response to this film comes from people who believe it is celebrating the end of biological essentialism. Which is to say, a lot of people believe this movie is saying anyone who believes we shouldn’t infinitely experiment with the human body is clearly out of touch. I don’t want to delve into the details of the plot, but I frankly see that interpretation as incoherent. To the extent people have found the meaning of this film to be elusive, I think it is because they are hesitant to view it as the deeply cynical criticism of the modern world that it is. Everyone wants to think abandoning all norms and traditions is inherently a good thing, but Crimes of the Future provides a fascinating challenge to that viewpoint.
At the same time, I applaud Cronenberg for resisting any temptation to portray this story as an allegory or metaphor. In fact, I will admit I may be inappropriately applying it too directly to modern equivalents. Crimes of the Future is not an allegorical story. It is a very creative fictional world that could easily be applied to the real world in convincing ways, but I never got the sense the story had a specific point. In fact, I’d say the ending is somewhat ambiguous about what it wants to leave the audience with. Or maybe it doesn’t want to leave the audience with anything – instead it simply portrays how our main characters respond to their circumstance. I think my interpretation is fairly defensible, but the greatness of this work is the fact it’s open to interpretation.
Crimes of the Future is a film best experienced in a quiet room after it’s over and you get to talk about how it affected you. This is a film that incites an array of conversations – moreso than any other film I can think of in recent memory. I think that’s largely accomplished because of its novel subject material which so excellently touches on points of sensitivity in the current culture. Its accomplishments are heightened because the experience of watching the film is so memorable thanks to the deft direction of its aesthetics and actors. I would give Crimes of the Future a 4 out of 5. My only dock against it is it is very much a film made up of people talking in empty rooms. In my first viewing, I was captivated by these conversations, but I can imagine if you’re not someone who wants to engage with the ideas being presented, it can be a little slow. There’s not a lot going on beyond people talking. There are also some B stories that are established and left on the back burner for a long time. I personally forgot how one of the character’s was related to the events, which was a little confusing. With that said, I found this film to be fascinating. I think it’s going to be on my mind for a long time, which is the sign of a great work.