‘Crimes of the Future’ Review: Eat Trash, Be Free

Cronenberg's newest film returns to his body horror roots

After more than twenty years, David Cronenberg returns to the world of sci-fi body horror without missing a beat. Amid the rotting bones of a nameless, placeless coastal city, the performance artists Caprice (Léa Seydoux) and Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) collaborate in public surgical extractions of Saul’s “novel organs,” glands and other, more complex biological structures produced spontaneously by his body as a symptom of what is termed “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome.” Here the nebulous conspiracies of eXistenZ and Videodrome crash headlong into the surgical fetishization of Dead Ringers and the preoccupation with artistic practice which forms a throughline in much of Cronenberg’s earlier work. The humanity of Crimes of the Future is capable of tremendous acts of reshaping and embodiment, but at the same time it fears itself, fears the possibility of permanent change to the genome and the “dilution” of what it means to be human. This is the titular body of crime: the transgression of passing on novel genetic traits and plunging humanity into an existential crisis.

All the subtext and psychosexual undercurrents at work under the skin of Cronenberg’s filmography — the Mantel brothers’ obsession with creating surgical instruments to operate on “mutant women” and their concept of the “inner beauty pageant” for organs from Dead Ringers along with the bodily transformations of The Fly, Videodrome, and Rabid — has become text. The wild fancies of his early films are, if not precisely normalized, at least known facts of life in this corroded future, a place where lovers vivisect each other on camera and on street corners, where pain has ceased to exist and wounds no longer become infected. A world where, as awkward bureaucrat Timlin (Kristen Stewart) declares in a stammering whisper, “Surgery is the new sex.” It’s a heady mixture, one Cronenberg dives into right out of the gate, but with just enough restraint to keep the sensual mystery of it all alive and throbbing.

Crimes of the Future

It’s Time to Stop Seeing, It’s Time to Stop Talking

At a dramatic public exhibition of extreme body modification, Caprice watches as a dancer covered in surgically grafted ears has his mouth and eyes sewn shut before performing, but no sooner does the routine begin then a fellow observer begins tearing it apart. “It’s bad design,” she sniffs to Caprice. “The extra ears aren’t even functional, and between you and me he’s a better dancer than he is a conceptual thinker.” In moments like this it’s hard not to see Cronenberg wrestling with his long legacy as an artist in an ever-changing world, with his decades-long departure from sci-fi and horror and the eye-searing aesthetics of gore and transformation which have become virtually synonymous with the director’s name. Here he is back at the source, his power to sculpt these images and channel the lust and anxiety they invoke undiminished, his already strong cast buoyed by standout performances by Mortensen and Stewart, but the specter of aging and obsolescence is at his shoulder.

Seldom has a protagonist seemed more autobiographical in Cronenberg’s filmography than does Saul Tenser, gray-haired and enfeebled, his body ceaselessly incubating grisly curiosities he displays in public venues even as his health fails him. From personal essays to his lamentable NFT project The Death of David Cronenberg, aging has been much on the director’s mind for the past decade. With Crimes of the Future he reflects not just on his own mortality, but on the world’s, and the ways in which his art and the sensibilities it represents might influence this period of grave decline as plague, oppression, and climate change ravage human civilization. The vision he shares with his characteristic skill is at once lofty and squalid, principled and feral. If we are to live in the gutter, the least we can do is learn to feed ourselves on garbage.