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Film Review: Crimes of the Future, David Cronenberg’s controversial return has an ecological message

By: Alberto Sclaverano

David Cronenberg is one of the most celebrated (and controversial) living filmmakers. A relevant part of his filmography can be described as “body-horror”; it combines sci-fi and horror elements to explore themes like genetic manipulation and the frontiers of human sexuality. Movies like Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986), and eXistenZ (1999) are both disturbing and fascinating. Cronenberg’s new film, Crimes of the Future (the title is the same as one of his earliest movies from 1970) is his first work since 2014 and shows the director come back to his old obsessions. But for the first time, a Cronenberg movie also contains an explicit ecological message. Set in an undefined, decadent future, the film describes how humankind has changed, probably under the influence of climate change and environmental pollution. Human evolution has drastically accelerated, even if it is not clear which will be the outcome. The majority of people cannot feel pain anymore, infectious diseases no longer exist, and some persons have new organs, maybe tumors, growing inside their bodies. The turning point in this process seems to be the development of the capacity of digesting plastic.

It is now sadly common to read how plastic particles are detected inside several fish and sea turtles. In December 2020, “The Guardian” published an article about microplastics revealed for the first time in the placentas of unborn babies and interviewed scientists who were unsure of the possible severe long-term damages. In the first scene of Cronenberg’s movie, we see a child feeding on a plastic bin, literally eating it piece by piece. This is only one of many weird moments in which the director illustrates his vision of humanity’s future. Saul Tenser, played by Cronenberg’s frequent collaborator Viggo Mortensen, is a body artist who has new organs growing inside his body due to a genetic mutation. He removes them for people’s entertainment during public surgery sessions, with the help of his assistant and lover Caprice (played by Léa Seydoux). But this is more than a performance art show. In a world where physical pain has disappeared, the concept of physical pleasure has changed too. So, surgery and self-mutilation seem to have become a source of arousal for many people. At some point, Kristen Stewart’s character, Timlin, who works for the National Organ Registry and works with Saul and Caprice, declares without irony or disgust that “surgery is the new sex”. It is shocking, but totally in line with the director’s artistic vision, which often deals with the evolution of human sexuality. Crimes of the Future closely reminds Cronenberg’s controversial film Crash (1996), in which car accidents became a way to explore sexual desires. In the world depicted by Cronenberg in the film, there is a whole range of activities, both legal and illegal, that revolve around surgery and extreme body art. These seem to be the real “crimes of the future” that give the movie its title.

So, what is the director telling us? While the plot’s themes are disturbing, it is not a traditional horror film, so it is not scary or creepy in the classical sense. The action is staged in a detached, quiet form, and it contains elements of black humor in the dialogues. After the first screen at Cannes Film Festival, some critics explained the whole story as an allegory for the consequences of climate change, while others did not agree. I think that it is true, but that is only a part of the movie’s whole meaning. It is also a dark satire on the future of consumerism, which risks absorbing everything, including human bodies. Mr. Cronenberg seems to give us a warning. If mankind exploits and consumes the world around, it must accept that as a species it will be affected heavily. We are part of nature. If nature changes, if animals are forced to eat plastic, as it happens today in the oceans, we will soon follow and our bodies will need to adapt too. Crimes of the Future does not present this as a negative thing, just as something bound to happen. The film will appear nightmarish for many spectators, but it is essentially a cautionary tale, that helps us to reflect on ourselves, our planet, and our future.


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