‘Landscape With Invisible Hand’ Quietly Satirizes an Alien Takeover
If extraterrestrials managed to find us, the result might not be a fiery apocalypse or peaceful utopia. If they are as capitalistic as we are, an alien takeover might look more like “Landscape With Invisible Hand,” a strangely alluring sci-fi satire that works best on the level of ideas. It’s a parable about colonialism where we don’t get zapped by lasers. Instead, humanity dives further into wage slavery and commodification, while our new overlords hover above in a makeshift ship city. That’s probably how many major cities around the world feel now, but through a fantasy like this one, it’s even more glaring. If only director Cory Finley had gone a little further with the premise.
Finley adapts M.T. Anderson’s 2017 novel into a plot that begins in the near 2030s. Earth has made first contact with the Vuvv, an alien species that looks like a cross between slugs and hams. Soon after landing, the Vuvv struck deals with the planet’s financial elite, who helped them shape a new system of social inequality. The Vuvv and a few lucky humans live on the hovering city-craft while everyone else is left down here to figure things out. At school, a teen like Adam (Asante Blackk) is treated to a curriculum slowly being altered by the invaders. At home he lives with his sister, Nettie (Brooklynn MacKinzie) and attorney mom, Beth (Tiffany Haddish). Out of kindness (and hormones), Adam invites classmate Chloe (Kylie Rogers) to move in for a while with her working class father, Mr. Marsh (Josh Hamilton) and brother, Hunter (Michael Gandolfini). Eager to make some money, Adam and Chloe begin streaming their emerging relationship for the asexual Vuvv, who are fascinated by human rituals.
As the teens broadcast their dating lives for the aliens, the movie unpeels new dramatic layers that work for the most part. “Landscape With Invisible Hand” is about the weirdness of its environment, which is effective in capturing how we would feel if another species overturned our way of life. Finley’s notable debut, “Thoroughbreds,” was precisely about the detached strangeness of suburbia getting bloody. His even better follow up, 2020’s “Bad Education,” told the true story of a tragically absurd case of theft inside an affluent school district. This film is also about social commentary, to an even higher degree than the characters. Adam is an aspiring artist and one of his pieces is the film’s title, but it feels more like filler for the things Finley truly wants to convey.
Once Chloe and her family move into the house, class tensions get heated. Hunter is openly resentful over the upper middle class privileges of Tiffany, like having a house (despite her having to also look for a new job). The Vuvv have enhanced our obsession with commodifying everything, paying to watch our lives unfold through broadcasts via small devices you attach to your temple. Some of the best satire in the script deals with how the alien viewers are so picky, they protest when a relationship on camera is being faked. Chloe and Adam’s relationship quickly fizzles out, provoking a lawsuit from a Vuvv whose “brood” watched their streams attentively. The best way to cover the debt is by allowing the alien’s “son” to stay at Tiffany’s house and pretend to be her husband, in order to absorb human customs. Luckily this mostly means the alien watches TV, communicating by shuffling its flippers and being translated by a nearby device.
“Landscape With Invisible Hand” ends too soon and without fully fleshing out its story, yet it still creates a fascinating scenario. We notice that a hologram teaching program at school informs all the students about the new curriculum, which suspiciously only features lessons on Vuvv culture and society. But that’s the way imperialism has always worked. Haven’t we always invaded other countries, overthrown governments and occupied places to prevent new systems from emerging and protecting our own, dominant one? Consider how many Latin American countries have dumped their regional currency for the U.S. dollar. If a superior alien species wanted to dominate us, it would be the same, if they decided not to simply exterminate us “Independence Day” style. There will also be collaborators, as when Mr. Marsh decides to carry out one of the alien guest’s hilarious demands involving a wig to push over Beth. A driver in the hovering city admits he’s a neurosurgeon, but makes more as a driver for the Vuvv, who consider hiring educated humans as the help to be “cool.”
Tiffany Haddish, who has been in such good roles lately, and the rest of the strong cast, including a contemplative Asante Blakkk, elevates the material by never seeming to be in on the joke. When she argues with her guest husband you believe it, even with a chuckle. That human touch makes “Landscape With Invisible Hand” an engaging curiosity, despite not surpassing Finley’s previous two films. Hopefully this is a warm up for a more successful attempt at trying something different in his next project. At least this film cannot be accused of shallowness or crass commercialism. Like its themes, it stands out and offers a different kind of sci-fi experience. The ideas overtake the story and characters, but they’re worth discussing after the end credits.
“Landscape With Invisible Hand” releases Aug. 18 in select theaters.