David Cronenberg delves back into science fiction in a big way with Crimes of the Future. Here is a film that not only embraces a certain sense of the artificial and organic but finds more beyond weird body horror. There’s something bigger at play in this story that goes beyond the weird contortion of bodies and the overlaying tale of crime. There’s a fascination with evolution and the fears that come with it. It’s an intriguing aspect that Cronenberg has always weaved but it’s powerfully presented in this grotesque tapestry of humanity’s shifting sensations of what it means to live.
The film takes place in a future where pain has shifted. Human bodies can now take all manner of torture in ways that do not make you grit your teeth or wince. Well, you might do that but in a fit of pleasure. Cutting of the flesh has become quite literally the new sex, where an erotic evening in could involve getting sliced by a machine.
Among the most unique of this new generation of humans is Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen). He works as what can best be described as a performance artist. His body creates extra organs that he attempts to remove. The removal is performed by his assistant/lover Caprice (Léa Seydoux). She performs surgery on him to a captive audience, aroused by his organs placed on display. In true Cronenberg fashion, the surgeries are completed with an erotic chamber and controlled by what looks like a frog creature infused with lights.
Saul and Caprice find themselves being played by a number of forces, caught up in a conspiracy of a new type of human. They’re initially approached by the National Organ Registry, a newly formed department trying to document new organs. The team is only composed of two; the intrigued investigator Wippet (Don McKellar) and the uneasily aroused Timlin (Kristen Stewart). The registry walks a fine line between being a government agency and an illegal operation, where even Caprice can sense something is off about all this.
Saul’s bigger problem comes when he’s approached by Lang (Scott Speedman), a different sort of human with an ability to consume toxic waste. He informs Saul that there’s more of him and that a public autopsy would make the world realize the plight of what government forces are trying to keep under wraps. Conflicting with this decision is Saul being targeted by Detective Cope (Welket Bungué), hoping Saul will comply as an informant for law enforcement. It’s quite the tricky ordeal and one that could endanger his life no matter who he chooses to believe.
Cronenberg’s direction is perfect for never fully explaining the world. We get bits and pieces of it as it progresses, learning slowly how everything works. It’s a lived-in future, complete with grimy interiors and odd jobs. Body modifications are viewed with both allure and absurdity. Caprice at one point attempts a new look by cutting up her brow area to give her face a new shape. Saul is accepting of it. He scoffs, however, at an art display of a man with ears all over his body. It’s a piece all about listening more than anything but the extra ears serve no function.
The ear art piece is interesting because it’s viewed as unintimidating and silly but there’s a questioning of how dangerous it would be if real. What the human body did evolve in such a way? Would we accept it or try to squash it? We see how sordid these politics become when it comes to the human body being discouraged by those who wish to control it. It’s a fight for evolution, where Saul recognizes that merely existing makes him involved with politics.
I found this Cronenberg film remarkable for how it managed to find just the right ways to entice and get under my skin. One of the creepiest scenes involves how Saul eats. The only way he and many others can eat properly is if they sit in a constantly-moving chair that looks like it was made out of human bones. As Saul is fed, he struggles to breathe, forcing food down his throat in a choking manner. It’s a scene that is far more skin-crawling than the moment when he and Caprice enjoy a sexual night of getting their fleshed sliced open together.
Cronenberg’s approach to eroticism proceeds straight into gore town. There are a lot of scenes meant to be violent but are posed in a manner to be sexually arousing, where eating out is replaced with shoving a razor into a foot. It becomes such a staple that the one moment of simpler sex is portrayed as antiquated. Saul is at one point kissed by another woman and makes an odd movement with his throat. “Sorry,” he remarks, “I’m not used to the old sex.”
Crimes of the Future is another banger of a horror that finds a wild mixture of body horror and sex which works so well. It’s not for the faint of heart but, then again, no Cronenberg film is (even his son made an intense film with Possessor). The sci-fi angle is cleverly utilized, where the tech for keeping humans alive and entertained looks like a product straight out of an H.R. Giger gallery. The horror is treated with an uneasy causal nature that you almost become as numb as the human grows with this new aspect of pleasure.
I thought back to the last sci-fi Cronenberg made with 1999’s eXistenZ, where organic video games connect through the body in spinal orifices that often become passages of pleasure. That film felt as though it slowly brought the viewer into a world they didn’t fully understand but felt like we were headed towards. Crimes of the Future goes even further, showcasing a celebration of the new flesh and indulging in messy politics that will follow our progression as a species. I can’t think of a single other director working on a similar level of addressing transhumanism.