David Cronenberg’s 2022 film Crimes of the Future was hyped in its lead-up to release as a return to form for the director known for his excursions into the existential depths of body horror. It was his first film in eight years, and first science fiction film since 1999’s eXistenZ. During its premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, Crimes of the Future was given a six-minute standing ovation that overshadowed the reports of multiple audience members walking out within the first few minutes.
Indeed, the opening scene is a stark and off-putting introduction, as the film begins with a young boy playing in a tide pool with a rusted ship run aground on the shore serving as the backdrop. These atrophying ships are a constant throughout the environmental imagery of the film, never spoken of, but allowed to exist as relics left behind from the result of ecological destruction at the hands of our species’ actions. His mother later walks into the bathroom to find the boy eating a plastic wastebasket; viscous, white saliva pooling from his lips as he swallows the synthetic material as though it were the first meal the child has eaten in days. As he lies in bed, the mother suffocates him to death with a pillow.
If this is what caused some audience members to leave, that was probably for the best, as the gruesome focus of the film hasn’t yet even entered the picture. The time and setting of the film is never revealed, though long-time collaborator Carol Spier’s production design and Douglas Koch intimate, almost claustrophobic cinematography reveals a dystopian atmosphere that lingers like a ghost in every shot. The buildings are decrepit and crumbling like the rusted hulls of the ships run aground.
The performance artist Saul Tensor (Viggo Mortenson)o, like many others, suffers from “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome,” which manifests in the body by spontaneously growing new organs that cause pain and inability to digest. The syndrome forces its victims to rely on on biotechnology to facilitate the basic processes necessary for survival.
The machinery is disturbingly human in its appearance – the chair that shakes and jostles his body as he attempts to eat, forcing the food through his malfunctioning system of organs, resembles less the sleek, metallic form we’ve come to expect from futuristic inventions, and more a twisted amalgamation of bones, sinew, and veins. The bed Tensor sleeps on that monitors his new growths exemplifies this new marriage of anatomy and technology by taking on the foreign but organic form of something akin to a human womb hanging from the ceiling.
While most of the population has evolved to the point where pain, disease, and infection are rendered obsolete, people like Tensor are still acutely familiar with discomfort, as their own bodies seem to be rebelling against their natural function. He has turned this rebellion into art with the help of his lover and performance partner Caprice,played with a subtle and sexual expression of mania by Léa Seydoux. They put on public shows where Caprice performs surgery on Tensor, removing the vestigial organs for awestruck audiences using an autopsy machine called the Sark, adapted by Caprice herself for the purpose of creation by rejecting the body’s will.
With pain no longer a part of the human experience, public surgeries have become in vogue – a desperate attempt at feeling something in the face of a meaningless and quickly deteriorating existence. The notion that “surgery is the new sex” is repeated multiple times throughout the film – particularly by a young woman named Timlin (Kristen Stewart) who works for the National Organ Registry, a government arm tasked with keeping tabs on each new organ growth for the purpose of tracking human evolution. After witnessing one of Tensor’s performances, Timlin approaches and whispers into his ear this sentiment, adding, “I wanted you to be cutting into me. That’s when I knew.”
The scenes of the performances radiate with an uncomfortable air like you’re watching something you’re not supposed to. The audience members stare in awe, silent, standing and filming together in grungy warehouses, witnessing violence upon the human body as equal parts art patrons and peepshow voyeurs. The knife becomes a sex toy, the patient a neo-sex symbol.
This also brings into question what constitutes art. Where is the line between creating meaning from meaninglessness, and falsely attaching meaning to something that has no rhyme or reason because we require meaning to make sense of our changing world? Is there a line that differentiates art from any other phenomena? If not, what purpose does art have?
This dichotomy of opinions is shown when Timlin and her colleague Wippet (Don McKellar) are questioned about Tensor’s performance art, especially considering the method of tattooing the new vestigial organs for documentation was adopted by the NOR after witnessing Caprice’s tattoos that adorned Tensor’s removed organs as part of their art. Almost like answering from the right and left brain hemispheres, Wippet responds that finding and cataloging these new organs is “like discovering a new species of animal,” while Timlin, frustrated, corrects him: “More like discovering a new Picasso.”
Rebellion is also not only present in Tensor’s preoccupation with removing the evidence of his changing anatomy. Lang Dotrice, the father of the plastic-eating dead boy, finds Tensor, asking him to perform a live autopsy of the boy to show the world that he is the first naturally born evolved human. Dotrice is part of an underground collective of people fighting to usher in the next stage in human evolution. He and the others like him have all undergone surgery, along with allowing their new growths to develop into full systems of organs, for the purpose of matching the natural human evolution with the ecological climate of the world around them.
They are able, like the boy, to eat plastic, consuming synthetic, purple bars composed of toxic human waste. He believes this is the answer to humanity’s otherwise inevitable self-extinction. Human anatomy must sync up with technology if we are to survive in the environment that our technology has created. He believes his dead child will be the messianic figure for the movement, a martyr for the cause to rally support for this necessary evolution to be welcomed.
The government though, acting through the National Organ Registry and a law enforcement branch named the New Vice Unit, is fighting to stop this evolution – whether it has merit or not – from coming to fruition. Detective Cope from the NVU (Welket Bungué) implores Tensor to go along with Doltrice’s plan in order to infiltrate and sabotage the group, mimicking the government’s sentiment by saying Doltrice and his group is “evolving away from the human path. It can’t be allowed to continue.”
State intervention in our autonomy over our own bodies is an urgent message in itself, but Cronenberg’s attempts to fit so many themes and messages into Crimes of the Future causes them all to meld into each other and become lost, muddling each other by fighting for the viewer’s attention beneath the gore and shock of the events themselves. In a way, this film seems to be the culmination of all the themes Cronenberg has explored throughout his oeuvre, but it falls short as a result, at times feeling bloated by the weight of everything that it’s trying to say at once.
Crimes of the Future sometimes gives off the air of the highbrow, navel-gazing art society that it seems to be satirizing through Tensor’s initial weary and skeptical view of the scene as he watches other performance artists use surgery and body modification for shock while masquerading as having deeper meaning. Though not an arthouse film, it gives off the impression that it wants to be. The film also gives in to too many messages that, instead of provoking thought, merely brush over the hodgepodge of meanings and metaphors, abandoning each and surrendering to surface-level observations.
The disturbing and violent events have a visceral beauty illuminated by the stark contrast of Howard Shore’s elegant and increasingly anxious music score, and the performances, particularly of Mortensen, Seydoux, and Stewart, are powerful, dancing deftly between numbness and passion, but the film as a whole begins to collapse by its conclusion, failing to meet the grand vision that Cronenberg was attempting to translate to the screen. And to that, even if it had succeeded in following through on the depths necessary to explore each theme hinted at throughout its runtime, the messages are nothing that hasn’t already been said before. Sex is pain, pain fills our emptiness, humans are destroying the planet, and technology is merging with the human experience more and more – whether it’s to our detriment or salvation remains to be seen. We know these things.
And though the final scene does attempt to tie a bow onto the end of the film, providing a visual platitude that urges us to adapt to inevitable change, the surety of the answer that Cronenberg wants to feed us only feels like a cheap, easy response to the questions posed that would have been better served to remain merely questions. The jury is still out on our future. As much as we all want an answer now. Cronenberg, it seems, is no different than the rest of us in that regard.