Directors discussing human capacity for sex and violence are a dime a dozen. For more than 50 years, David Cronenberg has dissected it — often quite literally, creating weapons made of human bone or shoving handguns into tremulous, vaginal stomach slits. Of course, such unpredictably invasive anatomical moments are just one part of Cronenberg’s aggressive tradition. Even in his less fantastical work, he rarely separates sex from violence, poking and prodding to seek potentially perilous similarities in the chemical reactions caused by those acts. In honor of Cronenberg’s films, and his 80th birthday, Midwest Film Journal presents a monthlong retrospective on his work: Ew, David!
David Cronenberg has a varied filmography, but he tends to be known as the body horror guy. So when Crimes of the Future was announced, fans got excited. I didn’t, but fans did.
I like getting grossed out by The Fly from time to time, but I am much more into Cronenberg’s first two Viggo Mortensen collabs, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. (I need to revisit A Dangerous Method because I honestly can’t remember a second of it, which is not a good sign.) Those films are violent and have disturbing moments, but no one’s hand turns into a gun or has a VHS tape jammed into their abdomen. (Sorry, I recently watched Videodrome.) The body horror stuff just wasn’t for me – not because it was gross but because it was pessimistic.
Cronenberg’s other body-horror fan favorites are cautionary tales about how technology will destroy the human body / experience as we know it. You get the feeling Cronenberg is warning us about a potential future and telling us to watch less TV, play fewer video games and um … not build own teleportation device. It’s a bummer because I like TV and video games. I’ll take his advice about teleportation. Crimes of the Future has no such warning because the world has, in a way, already ended. And when the world has already ended, what is left but optimism?
Crimes of the Future doesn’t get into the world at large much at all. But there are enough hints to let you know things have gone badly; the opening shot of a capsized ship comes to mind. The world of the film feels drab and very small – most likely due to filming during a pandemic) – making it seem like the population has dropped drastically. It’s a lonely, dark film, and yet here, the body-horror element provides surprising hope.
In this world, pain has been eradicated for most people, and those who do feel pain have special beds and “breakfaster” chairs for eating. This has led to surgery and body alteration to become performance art. Viggo Mortensen’s Saul Tenser (my favorite character name in recent memory) is a popular figure in this world. Tenser’s body is producing new organs, which his partner, Caprice (Lea Seydoux), tattoos and later removes in front of a live audience. Tenser doesn’t know what these new organs are for but he assumes they are what cause his pain, which is why they must be removed. Don’t worry. I’m about to get at how this is optimistic, but first it has to get much darker.
The opening of the film is the key to the changes in Tenser’s body. The movie begins with a boy that eats plastic who is killed by his mother because she finds him to be a monster and thinks the boy’s father did this to him. This boy’s father hangs around the periphery of most of the movie, eating strange food bars (that kill other people who eat them) and revealed as the leader of a movement to adapt human bodies to be able to eat plastic. His son, however, was born with this ability, an example of humanity evolving to survive in a polluted world. Tenser’s body is also naturally adapting for such survival.
There are a few deaths at the end in an attempt to cover up this change in humanity, as the government fears what such knowledge would do to people. Most likely, many people would react as the boy’s mother did. Certainly, this seems like a pessimistic view of things, but the film ends with Saul eating one of the plastic bars and finally feeling peace within his body. Surely this revelation (filmed by Caprice) will cause upheaval in the world, but nature will eventually win out and humanity will continue to survive, eating the very substance that undoubtedly caused many of the world’s problems. This is the Cronenberg spin on optimism, and it elevates Crimes of the Future above his previous cautionary tales.
Cronenberg isn’t warning us of anything with this movie. It’s a defeated optimism. He’s saying the world as we know it can’t be saved, but humanity will find a way to survive. Because of this, I find it easier to watch this horrific shit, like abdomens being split open and rummaged through or the autopsy of a young boy. In previous films, most of Cronenberg’s heroes die because of their tweaking of the human body and experience. Here, Saul is rewarded with peace when he realizes he needs to embrace the changes in his body. I feel like a younger Cronenberg might have written it so that Saul kills himself at the end.
I appear to be in the minority in preferring Crimes of the Future to Cronenberg’s more popular work. Perhaps it’s the lack of edginess in this film or a feeling of “been there, done that” with some of the effects. The film is certainly a victim of expectations, with Cronenberg himself predicting people would walk out of the theater within the first five minutes. With past movies and that warning from Cronenberg in mind, I can see how Crimes of the Future could disappoint. As for me, I went in with very few expectations because I’m not into the body-horror stuff. It’s odd that this supposed “return to form” for Cronenberg ended up impressing someone like me, who wasn’t even wanting another one of these movies from him.
Obviously, I’m glad Cronenberg did make this, and it actually made me want to revisit more of his films. Side note: Don’t watch four Cronenberg movies in one day. Space that shit out. Crimes of the Future made me rethink Cronenberg as a filmmaker because I had never found much hope in his work. This isn’t to say anyone’s films must be hopeful, but it is what I needed from him with this film. If others don’t want that, it’s understandable. But that bit of hope was more interesting to me than any body horror Cronenberg could dream up, and because of that, Crimes of the Future will stick with me far longer than his other work, no matter how gross it is.
- I loved Howard Shore’s score. In fact, I dismissed it the first time I watched it because I thought the opening theme was just classical music rather than original. Much like the movie, the music is foreboding and light at the same time, perfectly complementing the mood of the film.
- Mortenesen’s performance is so weird in this movie. It’s not just the constant pain stuff. He skulks around scenes, often crouching down to talk with people. Upon research, I found out (via IMDb trivia, so take this with a grain or two of salt) it was because he was dealing with real pain as he was recovering from being “struck by a non-participating horse” at the Kentucky Derby. You can’t make this shit up. Or maybe you can.
- I also liked the other weird performances in the film. It seems like Cronenberg casts some of these people and just says, “Be a weirdo in this scene.” I can see how others might be distracted by Kristen Stewart or Don McKellar’s odd performances, but I thought they added to the world of the film. Look, we’re dealing with a setting in which a dude covered in ears is the hottest ticket in town; there are going to be some fucking weirdos skulking around.
- I would lose so much weight if I had to eat my meals in a breakfaster chair. I would also ask the company if they could possibly design a model that didn’t just look like bones covered with flesh.
- If my kids could eat and digest plastic, I would be pretty fucking pumped. Less trash and less money spent on Lunchables that they only eat half of anyway.