“I’m not too good with the old sex,’ says Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) in the latest sci-fi drama from David Cronenberg, one that takes a title from his own 1970 film and was originally discarded nearly twenty years ago. Neither performance art nor cosmetic surgery have gone away since the idea was first mooted, and the Canadian auteur’s fusing of the two in the most disturbing way imaginable still feels reflective of today. It’s also fairly tough going for casual viewers; reports of a six minute ovation in Cannes confirm suspicions that Crimes of the Future is something of an ordeal to watch.
But Cronenberg’s brainy sci-fi is generally worth the effort in a JG Ballard style. We start with an arresting image; a young boy sits biting chucks out of a plastic bin. That unexplained image is allowed to settle as we meet Tenser, a man who somehow is growing organs outside his own body in a manner that will remind Cronenbergians of Samantha Eggar growing foetal children outside her body in The Brood. Although his partner Caprice (Lea Seydoux) defends her creative partner, Tenser’s gruesome activities create interest from the killjoys at the National Organ Registry, whimsically called Whippet and Timlin, and played by Don McKellar and Kristen Stewart.
‘Surgery is the new sex’ is the key line here; in a world without pain, creating art from physical augmentation seems to be the order of the day, but while Crimes of the Future is festooned with the kind of physical horror that is part of the director’s brand, details of how this works in a wider context are sketchy. As with Scanners and Crash, we’re viewing fugitives on the run from the authorities, but there’s little sense of urgency; we never quite understand the world that Tenser is taking on.
This would be avant-garde stuff presented in any medium, and feels cut from a similar cloth to 1999’s EXistenZ. Crimes of the Future has some intriguing notions to play with, and a healthy suspicion about government interference in our lives; in other words, it’s Cronenberg on brand. It’s also physically revolting to watch; some of the scenes of surgery, particular on children, will have most viewers watching between splayed fingers over eyes. Stewart and Mortensen certainly commit to enigmatic roles, and while the general public will run a mile, Crimes of the Future has plenty of the cold intellectual meat that makes Cronenberg a reliably off-putting proposition.