Fresh from the Cannes Film Festival, where it had audiences laughing, squirming and—yikes!—thinking, the sci-fi spellbinder “Crimes of the Future”—now in theaters—is the first film in eight years from Canadian hellraiser David Cronenberg. As such, it’s a genuine movie event.
Set in a future without cars, cellphones and untreatable pain, the film labels surgery as the new sex. Recovery is fast and wounds easily heal. Saul Tenser, played by a compellingly committed Viggo Mortensen, has made performance art out of going under the knife with the help of his partner and personal surgeon Caprice (Léa Seydoux).
Having done his best recent work for Cronenberg in “A History of Violence,” “Eastern Promises” and “A Dangerous Method,” Mortensen interprets Saul as a dark-robed human guinea pig whose body is used to grow previously unknown organs that Caprice surgically harvests. To tumultuous applause, of course.
That’s when Kristen Stewart—mesmeric as ever— starts nosing around as Timlin, a member of the National Organ Registry, a government agency created to stop dangerous organ mutations. But in the age of Accelerated Evolution, Timlin finds herself in thrall to Saul’s dark magic.
So what have we got here? A satire of the art world, for starters. It’s especially hilarious when Saul gets jealous of a fellow artist who has created a method to sprout ears all over his body. But the shock tactics that Cronenberg utilized in such classics as “Scanners,” “Videodrome” and “Crash” have morphed into something more deeply sinister and disturbing.
And the up-for-anything actors serve his tantalizing mischief. “Crimes of the Future” is hardly a love triangle since the physical always eclipses the emotional. Seydoux, who played James Bond’s final femme fatale in “No Time to Die,” knows Caprice is no one’s disposable valentine, preferring to cut her way into Saul’s heart with surgical precision.
Cronenberg wrote the script for “Crimes of the Future” 20 years ago, but his insinuations about government control over the human body play as timely and terrifying as the Supreme Court threat to abortion rights currently dividing the nation.
Known in cinema circles as the father of “body horror,” exemplified in his 1986 masterpiece “The Fly” when technology synthesizes the human and insect worlds, Cronenberg condemns the abuses of power that come when so-called moralists try to legislate flesh and spirit.
“Crimes of the Future” has been marketed as a shocker. But that argument is lame in an era of YouTube channels devoted to real-life surgeries. Even mainstream TV simulations from the dawn of “E.R.” have been peeking into cracked chests without viewers fainting away.
Surgery is a fact of modern life with everything from organ transplants to synthetic replacements for hips and hearts. Hate the way you look? Cosmetic procedures can carve your flesh into more popular notions of beauty. Don’t like your gender? Reassign it surgically.
Bionic reality trumps anything Cronenberg dreams up in “Crimes of the Future.” And consider this: Is the new unnatural order of things really a crime? Can the microplastics polluting life on earth be turned into a survival tool? Cronenberg stays open to all possibilities. Pushing 80, his reputation as a world-class visionary remains indisputable and undiminished.
Will there ever be a winner in the battle between human and artificial intelligence? Or is a truce our best hope? In the mesmerizing, mind-bending ”Crimes of the Future,” Cronenberg dares us to probe philosophical and psychological implications you won’t find in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One thing is for damn sure: the future isn’t a far-off concept—the future is now.