In ‘Crimes of the Future,’ David Cronenberg Combines Body Horror and Questions of Evolution With Morbid Imagination

Maybe this is where we’re headed. We’ve become so obsessed with our bodies while consuming or applying contrived materials into them. As a culture we’re desperate to run away from age and pain. David Cronenberg’s “Crimes of the Future” is an elegant grotesquerie where the human body becomes a conduit for these ideas. This is a worthy return for the influential, always original director, who flirts again with the body horror that made his name. What he delivers is not a work of terror, however, but an intellectual speculation. As with some of Cronenberg’s best work, it’s not necessarily about easy answers or plot points. It’s about gazing at the very makeup of our biology to see how it makes us feel.

There is a plot though, and it begins in a near future where a woman smothers to death her young son in a home by the sea. Earlier, we saw the boy eating the edges of a plastic garbage bin. Cronenberg then cuts to a gritty city, where a man named Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) is renowned for his underground performance art. Saul has a condition in which his body spontaneously grows new organs. His partner, Caprice (Léa Seydoux), performs surgery to remove the organs using robotic technology as audiences gaze in morbid rapture. Science has conquered pain and Saul and Caprice represent a subculture that celebrates the ecstasy of probing your innards. Soon, various figures begin entering the couple’s life. At the National Organ Registry a worker named Timlin (Kristen Stewart) has taken an interest in Saul’s work. A detective (Welket Bungué) wants Saul’s help for information, particularly on an underground movement trying to promote the next phase in human evolution, that being people who can survive on eating synthetics. Then, there’s Lang Daughtery (Scott Speedman), father of the boy murdered early in the film, who wants Saul and Caprice to use his body for a public autopsy.

“Reading the script, I was excited how it was a throwback, though David would hate to hear me use that word, but it’s a throwback to his classic, body horror work, which was very exciting,” Speedman tells Entertainment Voice. “When you start digesting the part you realize it’s not just about some wild, charismatic guy losing his mind, it’s about much more than that.” This film bridges many of the various styles Cronenberg has been delving into over the last 17 years. Renowned since the ‘80s for morbidly brilliant sci-fi films like “The Fly,” “Videodrome” and “Scanners,” Cronenberg found a fresher elegance and tension beginning with 2005’s “A History of Violence,” which also marked his first collaboration with Viggo Mortensen. Together they made an exhilarating, eclectic set of films including the Russian mob thriller “Eastern Promises” and the intellectually stimulating “A Dangerous Method,” about the theories of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud (played by Mortensen). The director took a lengthy break after 2014’s “Map to the Stars,” a darkly comic satire about life among Hollywood privilege. “Crimes of the Future,” which shares the name of a 1970 dystopian film by Cronenberg with a completely different (and boring) plot, feels like the filmmaker coming back to themes that truly drive him. 

No director has filmed the human body as a device for storytelling like Cronenberg. With a music score pulsating with electronic rhythms by Howard Shore, even as the plot gets underway, what proves more alluring are the images. Saul spends his days sleeping and sitting in shell-like chairs and beds that look like skeletal organisms, helping him sleep and eat. The city where he and Caprice live is a seaside town where every building looks rundown and threats hide in every corner. The office Kristen Stewart’s Timlin inhabits with her boss looks more fit for demolition. In this future organs are tattooed and audiences love to watch them be pulled out of a chest cavity. An avant-garde artist dances with multiple ears featured around his body. Despite some initial controversy, “Crimes of the Future” is not as graphic as the early hype suggested. Cronenberg is not looking for cheap shocks. This is a rather refined movie.  It doesn’t have the visceral edge of Cronenberg’s infamous “Crash,” about people who only find sexual excitement in automobile wrecks or high speeds. Although it does share that film’s sense of challenging eroticism, here Saul finds sensual pleasure in the very act of being cut open. “The movie that we made is more of a meditative, hypnotic piece that uses certain genre elements,” says Speedman. “I didn’t find it to be very ‘controversial’ when I saw it. It’s rather beautiful.”

The tone of the film is also evoked through the performances, which feel controlled and detached in a way that gets across that sense of a world devoid of certain fears now replaced by new ones. “I was very excited to work with Viggo after following his career for about 25 years,” says Speedman. “He really stretches his skills out all over the place. It’s crazy to see what he’s capable of. On the page his part was so spare, as a matter of fact he doesn’t speak much, the same for Kristen’s character. My first day on set I watched them do a long scene together and they were going for it in very specific ways. Everyone was at the top of their game. I want to be around people like that.” Emotions and ideas are evoked through stares or an expression that might hint at pleasure or curiosity. Stewart is like the eager fan who becomes silently enamored with Saul’s art, watching from a corner during one of his performances, feeling subtly excited. Léa Seydoux, fresh off her stint as James Bond’s great love in “No Time to Die,” is a darker, cautious personality here. Speedman brings the more manic performance as a grieving father who wants his son’s body to become an example. His Lang is part of a new crop of humans who need to eat synthetics, for which he helps produce snack bars that can kill a normal human. With so much environmental change going on, this could be where we’re headed. 

“The environmental issue is an obvious one that jumps out,” says Speedman. “David wrote this script back in 1998, but now with microplastics and where we’re going, it’s even more prescient. There’s a greater level of microplastics than there ever were. We also live in a world where I can test your blood, you can test my blood, etc. But I also see it as an allegory for how addicted to technology we really are. When I see Saul sitting in that chair that helps him eat breakfast, it makes me wonder how much we are being altered evolution-wise. That’s fascinating to me. And that whole angle of getting rid of pain, it’s David in an exaggerated way asking if we’re on the verge of losing our senses.” In Cronenberg’s films characters are always seeking stimulation and discovery, typically through hazardous endeavors. “Crimes of the Future” seems to wonder that if we conquer our bodies, they may just become even greater frontiers of experimentation and play. 

“What’s great about David is that he’s not a crazy, controlling auteur,” says Speedman about the director. “He’s written a script but he can reinvent it on set and in a playful way without pushing too hard. He’s quietly confident. I want to be a little more like that.” In that same fashion, “Crimes of the Future” provokes without going over the top. Cronenberg eschews sensationalism for genuine atmosphere. It’s science fiction, but combined with the sensibility of a noir where it’s not about any answers delivered in the end, but about the thoughts it plants in our minds as viewers. The final shot features a subtle smile that hints at the next stage of human evolution. A man takes a bite of a synthetic bar and seems to enjoy it. We are so attached now to the machines and codes that run our world, that not only will they define us, but they may just become embedded, literally, into our very being.

Crimes of the Future” releases June 3 in theaters nationwide.