Even though “Crimes of the Future” was met with a critical failure (the movie’s fans equal the non-fans) and even worse commercial failure, the Western media (American, British and French mainly) still believe that the film deserves a high level of appreciation.
The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis praised the method of Canadian director David Cronenberg in “slithering under the skin and directly into the head.” The Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chan wrote, “It's marvelous to have Cronenberg back and to behold his undimmed, unparalleled skill.”
On the other end, Rex Reed (who is older than most critics today) says, “This movie is a load of crap. I would like to find a more civil way to describe even a sick and depraved barf bag of a movie like this one, but it defeats every reasonable attempt to try.”
“Crimes of the Future,” which was screened at the last edition of Cannes Film Festival and was distributed worldwide for those who can withstand its violent scenes, is the director's latest work. Cronenberg attempted through the film to return to a period in his career during which he was busy making horror films different from the wave films at the time. Those movies - like Cronenberg’s latest – were centered around plots about objects distorting before the viewer’s eyes, ejecting foreign objects, or turning into a distorted collection of flesh and blood. For this reason, they are called biological horror films, which are about manipulating physical bodies to create other bodies out of them.
In fact, the second movie he made was also called “Crimes of the Future.” This was in 1970, and the young director then, who came from a Jewish family whose grandparents moved from Lithuania, wrote and directed a film on the subject of a virus outbreak resulting from the use of cosmetic chemicals. It was not a long film (about an hour), but it applied the approach that the director would opt for in his upcoming films.
The idea and the result on the screen at the time are not far from the plot of his new movie. However, the most revealing part is that the director transferred his interests to many feature films in the seventies and after.
Cronenberg’s first feature film was “Shivers” in 1975 that told the story of a virus transmitted through sexual practice, transforming the infected into sex-obsessed creatures, not in a comic manner, but as per the laws of general horror cinema with the addition of those related to the language of the body mainly.
In his second film, "Rabid" in 1977, the film’s heroine (Marilyn Chambers) wakes up to find a bump under her armpit extending outside the body to suck the blood of those she meets. But Cronenberg decided to break away from the genre in his third film, “Fast Company” (with William Smith, 1979) to return to his favorite school. In the same year, he directed “The Brood.” This film is one of the strangest he made because it was, as the director himself admitted, a reflection of a situation in his personal life when he decided to divorce his first wife. The dispute over who keeps their daughter was not easy and, in the end, Cronenberg lost the case in the courts.
Accordingly, Cronenberg wrote “The Brood,” in which we find the heroine of the film (Samantha Eggar) giving birth to a monster in human form and entering into a struggle with her divorcee to keep it. The father (Oliver Reed) wins custody but discovers that the boy is not human and is responsible for killing anyone who gets close to him.
The scene in which the director follows the birth of a monster is of the kind that not many people can keep their eyes open like in the case of “Videodrome” (starring James Woods, 1983) about a small TV station owner obsessed with snuff movies that he keeps watching until he discovers something in the form of a video is inhabiting his body.
In the eighties, Cronenberg became an icon in the horror film genre. However, while other good directors in this genre such as Wes Craven and George A. Romero maintained a pattern of making films full of conflict between two teams of humans (the good and the bad), Cronenberg delved more into the issues of physical deformities, a similar method used less famously by Larry Cohen, who also began directing in 1974). These deformities might cause brain explosion (“Scanners”, 1981)), or a man might turn into a giant fly (“The Fly”, 1986), and a mad scientist (Jeremy Irons) would turn women’s bodies into lab tests (“Dead Ringers”, 1988).
Cronenberg's career has continued in this way to this day, but it has witnessed some deviation from this path in four films in succession between 2005 and 2014 “A History of Violence,” “Eastern Promises,” “A Dangerous Method,” and “Maps to the Stars.”
The aforementioned leads us once again to “Crimes of the Future” as presented by David Cronenberg, which differs from the “Crimes of the Future” seen by the director in 1970. The horror then was the result of cosmetic chemicals, as I mentioned, but the future itself seemed familiar. The world is either hibernating or living in perfect peace. It is only the film's close characters under the director's microscope that are suffering.
Here, the director borrows from his first film the principle that science causes that suffering, but the events take place in a dark and insecure period of time. The city is empty because of the fear of walking the streets. Death is around the corner with several causes and motives, but Cronenberg is satisfied with the reason in his hands: his star Saul Tenser (Vego Mortensen) realizes that there are “things” living inside him. These are not well-known things such as the heart, liver, guts, etc., but creatures with a bloody appearance sometimes and “android” forms other times. Surgeon Caprice (French actress Léa Seydoux) examines him as he reclines on a sofa in a black cocoon-like coat inspired by the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers (“Don Siegel”, 1956).
What we see is not amusing and its horror flickers like the light of a “bulb” that is almost dying out. In fact, after about 20 minutes, the film finishes describing the situation and presenting it, and for the next hour and a half there is nothing left but to proceed with the current situation without actual developments.
Between One Future and Another
Cronenberg did not only borrow from his first film; there are also scenes mentioned in some of his other films and the director quotes them in different scenes from this film. For example, that open wound horizontally in Saul's abdomen is similar to the open wound in James Woods' abdomen in the “Videodrome.” The addition here is that Caprice bends over and kisses the open wound and that Saul feels no pain.
Two types of viewers, however, feel pain: those who watch the film after reading what The New York Times published about Cronenberg on the grounds that he is an influential director in the art of cinema, and others who love horror films but are not ready to follow Mortensen as he lies in that cocoon smiling with his wound.
Mortensen is no stranger to Cronenberg's work. He took part in the “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises.” However, the comparison between his two roles there and his role here reinforces the feeling that the problem in Mortensen is not in his body, but in his feeling that he should represent this role, perhaps coming out of a real admiration for Cronenberg.
Not only does the film not evolve into a dramatic situation that can carry a translation of its intended meaning, there are also scenes that pass as if they were there to excite some senses for the viewers who would start questioning why they were watching this film (a large number of viewers of the film in Cannes left the screening hall is in groups and alone! The film did not grab any prizes either). An example of that is a scene in which two women enter a dark room and then start making love in the background.
But the bigger question is how one can understand the relationship between a near future in which we find humans who have lost their human appearance (without pain) and what lies before us of scenes of vomiting and needles diving under the skin in order to draw blood to be used in theatrical performances since Saul is actually a theater actor.
If the scene where a woman's foot is chopped off is something from the future, then this is for sure an escape from reading that future correctly (in addition, it is an incomprehensible act). The movie is not made for entertainment, otherwise one wouldn't care much if the movie said something useful about the future world or not. It is a film by a director who is considered by many to be a “master” of cinematography, which is clearly demonstrated in his films that do not revolve around the horror of the body. “Crimes of the Future,” meanwhile, is an inconsistent set of scenes whose outcome means nothing to anyone.
What unites most of Cronenberg's films is the use of the idea that science (under various names but all deal with skin and what lies beneath) creates new creatures at different stages of life. But the use of science in his films remains blameless. The point is not to warn against science or criticize it, but to use it as a pretext for what we see.
In horror films of the '70s and '80s, mutilation was limited to one person to terrify the film’s characters and the viewers: a cannibal in Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” a dream-appearing killer on Nightmare on Elm Street, a murderer who does not die in the “Halloween” franchise starring John Carpenter, or a serial killer in “Friday the 13th” film series. Even when director George A. Romero's used hordes of cannibal villains after they were infected with an epidemic, he kept his heroines healthy, creating a conflict between the healthy and the infected.
Each of these films carried a social critique: Romero criticized media and military policy. Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper addressed the Vietnam War and the collapse of the beautiful American dream. What could have given Cronenberg's film some value was to associate what is going on with semantics to prevent the film from becoming a future crime targeting viewers' tastes.