David Cronenberg’s 2022 Crimes of the Future shares no story connection with his 1970 film of the same title but, in the larger meta project that all Cronenberg movies seem to be puzzle pieces of, this one extracts and recombines DNA from almost the entirety of his body of previous work. It has been 23 years since Cronenberg last forayed into his signature body horror, and all the familiar parts are here.
In the future presented, mutations have caused humans to stop experiencing physical pain and, presumably, led them to total anhedonia as well. Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) has an additional mutation that causes him to spontaneously generate new internal organs. His partner, Caprice (Léa Seydoux), does public surgery on him to remove these organs — the future equivalent of sword swallowing or sideshow geeks, performative masochism, the transformative ecstasy of self-mutilation. They have gained a level of notoriety and fame among not only the upper crust art scene, but also with a criminal underground of new mutants, while also coming to the attention of the government, which ineffectually tries to regulate human mutations through bureaucracy.
One of these government regulators is Timlin (Kristen Stewart), who grows increasingly attracted to Tenser, though the borders of sex, art, surgery, and crime blur proportionate to every characters’ proximity to each other. Surgery has become the new sex, an echo of Cronenberg’s adaptation of Crash, in which people are so numb that violence and pain replaces physical gratification. In Crash, the numbness is existential. In Crimes of the Future, it is literal.
The world of Crimes of the Future has the high-tech/low-life grit of a Neuromancer or Count Zero setting, but with more focus on biological body modification rather than on straight cybernetics. Some of the set designs and costumes have a Terry Gilliam flavor to them, like you’d find them in Brazil or Zero Theorem. Tenser is also acting as a police informant, adding a Phildickian level of paranoia to his actions.
Even with so many tip-of-the-tongue, corner-of-the-eye outside influences, though, you never forget you’re watching a Cronenberg movie. The furniture is insectile. The body is both new flesh a la Videodrome, and manifesting external aspects like in The Brood. Cronenberg’s location scouts deserve credit for finding the areas of Greece closest resembling dystopia (or resembling the sections of Toronto that served as his previous scifi settings), with beached boats and crumbling Brutalist architecture. It is this landscape that really sells the movie’s driving conflict.
The future in which these Crimes of the Future happen is a toxic environment. There’s visual evidence of water depletion and industrial pollution. Presumably, these poisons are a cause of the mutations, creating a world where ecological damage directly prevents human beings from fulfilling their basic biological drives. Sex, to be sure, but also sustenance. The underground movement that Tenser is recruited into is trying to force a specific mutation, with varying success: they surgically give themselves new digestive systems adapted to the current environmental factors in an attempt to create a person who can eat plastic.
Viggo Mortensen has aged into the weirdness required for his role; he looks like he belongs in this world. Kristen Stewart delivers the kind of staccato, awkward performance common to Cronenberg features — like Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis or Mortensen himself in Eastern Promises — that only adds to the antiseptic, disconnected atmosphere of his characters. Their alienation stems from different sources (commercialism, plastic surgery, a history of violence, ennui, first world problems, extreme wealth, over-consuming media, shallow or transgressive sex) but Crimes of the Future again makes the metaphor literal — everyone is actually antiseptic. They can enact the most intimate invasions of the human body, and no one gets sick.
In a dark alley, Caprice gets on her knees and unzips Tenser’s stomach, running her tongue across the lips of his open wound. Everyone is so numb on the outside that they can only feel anything deep inside their bodies. Caprice repeatedly sinks her hands into Tenser’s guts up to the wrists. One of Netflix’s series about Jeffrey Dahmer attempts to explain the serial killer’s behavior as “splanchnophilia” — a sexual attraction to viscera, perhaps driven by an evolutionarily preference for shiny or wet-looking surfaces as an indicator of a woman’s readiness for sex. Fitting for a director known as the “King of Venereal Horror” and a true indicator of the psychopathy of this society, but a bit of role-reversal if Tenser is the possessor of the wet opening and the one whose body is entered (by at least two different women over the course of the film).
Apart from intestinal close-ups, Crimes of the Future is surprisingly dry in its body horror. Remember how much mucus was involved in, for example, building a gun in eXistenZ? The machine-body interfaces in Crimes, by contrast, look more rubbery and unlubricated. Another word for “antiseptic” is “sterile,” and that’s how this future comes across. People are no longer good at (or interested in, or capable of) sex, and the planet itself is losing the ability to produce life.
There are a number of excellent lines offered up by Cronenberg’s sharp writing: “inner beauty pageant” being the most brilliant, almost farcical; “The thought of that slimy worm growing in me still makes me sick,” could have been lifted straight from The Fly or The Brood; and the practice of tattooing Tenser’s internal organs leads someone to ask, “She couldn’t read it in your insides?” as though they’re looking for omens in his entrails.
And, as a matter of fact, they are, because Tenser demonstrates the ability to spontaneously generate not only extra pituitary glands or livers, but also completely novel organs, with unusual properties. If there is to be any hope for the future, it is to be found in him. While the rich waste their time with performance art and galas, the world slowly dies outside their walls. What have they to worry about? They will always be able to afford food, no matter what price it rises to. Everyone else, though, struggles to eat from a land covered in pollutants. If the poor do not adapt, they will die.
The underground movement — clearly working class — labor to turn the very technology that is killing them to their advantage. If these toxins are mutating their bodies and poisoning the world, then perhaps they can use those mutations to feed upon the undigestible. It would be a benefit to the masses; essentially free food for everyone while simultaneously cleaning up the environment. Instead of investigating and facilitating this potential solution, the government works to suppress it by destroying evidence and assassinating those who know about it. To Cronenberg, change is merely change, it is neither good nor bad. Things evolve, and humans accelerate this evolution through their tool use. In his interview collection, Cronenberg on Cronenberg, the director says, “I don’t subscribe to the view that they are playing with things that shouldn’t be played with. You have to believe in God before you can say there are things that man was not meant to know. I don’t think there’s anything man wasn’t meant to know.”
But to the powers-that-be in Crimes of the Future, any change is by definition a threat to the status quo, and to their dominance over the people. And, therefore, change is the crime.
Uninitiated viewers will undoubtedly experience a WTF reaction to the film — a common and natural response to many Cronenberg movies — and even those familiar with the director’s work will be left with a sense of unease. Something is off about Crimes of the Future. It edges up to the final climax, but the ending is ambiguous. Does Tenser truly achieve a new way to be human? Does he break the stranglehold placed upon the poor by the industrial capitalists? Or is it all a failed experiment? There is no final metamorphosis. Jeff Goldblum doesn’t molt his last carapace to become Brundlefly; Michael Ironside and Stephen Lack don’t merge together their burning bodies; James Woods never incarnates the new flesh. If there is a transformation, it only happens internally.
And so the film leaves a feeling in our guts that all the future crimes being enumerated — the wealth gap, environmental destruction, and numbing vices — are the same as our current crimes. That, while we may be enjoying the spoils now, the punishment (and victims) are not that far down the line. Even more, because we’ve been unheedingly indulging our worst impulses for generations, we’re already paying for it today.