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Movie Review: “Crimes of the Future”

When you switch on a film directed by David Cronenberg—perhaps best known for “The Fly” and “Videodrome”—you can be fairly confident that you’re going to see strange and unsettling things happen to the human flesh depicted onscreen. (It isn’t for nothing that he’s been nicknamed the “Baron of Blood.”) And yet his most recent film, “Crimes of the Future” can only be described as “body horror” in the loosest sense of the term: the gore is positively restrained, as long as you aren’t too fazed by vaguely medical imagery. Rather, what come to the fore are philosophical questions about the very kinds of bodies Cronenberg has spent so much of his career stretching and contorting and reconciling.

(Spoilers throughout, although this isn’t a movie that depends on the element of surprise in order to work.)

“Crimes” is set in a distant, vaguely dystopian future where human beings have lost most of their sensitivity to pain. In such a world, the dominant avant-garde entertainment centers on the growth and tattooing of exotic internal organs—and their surgical removal in ritualistic stage shows, shot like stripteases as envisioned by H.R. Giger. Where ordinary human pleasures—food, drink, sex—have become passé, those in search of extreme experience must turn their attention to the tissues of the body itself.

Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), cared for by his assistant Caprice (Léa Seydoux, recently seen in “No Time to Die”), is an organ-grower par excellence—somehow capable of producing never-before-seen structures, and synthesizing wholly new hormones, within his flesh. Beloved by the adoring acolyte Timlin (Kristen Stewart, playing decidedly against type), Tenser finds himself incapable of relating to her in normal human terms; over the years his body has changed too much for that.

And that’s not the only cost that this new world seeks to exact. As the movie unfolds, Tenser comes into contact with a cultlike faction less interested in growing new organs than new organ systems: specifically, the development of new digestive tracts capable of consuming and processing the discarded plastics congealing in the world’s oceans. Such an evolution will mark the transition to a fully posthuman way of life, where the line between inorganic and organic is blurred. Tenser—notwithstanding his own professional affinity for biological-mutation-as-spectacle—finds that possibility discomfiting, almost unpalatable. At least at first.

At one of Tenser’s surgical “performances” early in the film, the name of his show is blasted across video screens in stark letters: BODY IS REALITY. No materialist—and this is a very materialistic film, in the philosophical sense—would argue otherwise. And yet if the body’s flesh is infinitely plastic, infinitely malleable for human pleasure and entertainment, on what basis can Tenser repudiate the proposed transition to a new kind of alimentation? What moral claim does the natural body qua body exert on him?

Like all Cronenberg films, “Crimes of the Future” is suffused with plenty of striking visuals: a Lovecraftian-looking “bed” that cradles and rotates Tenser to alleviate his pain as new organs grow within him; a man with ears all over his body, seemingly arranged in no pattern at all, slowly dancing before an entranced audience; a zipper sewn into Tenser’s abdomen to provide easier access to his vital regions (in the far future, peritonitis must no longer be a real concern).

Such images couldn’t help but remind me of an old Atlantic essay by Conor Friedersdorf on “the limits of diversity,” to which I’ve returned repeatedly over the years. Friedersdorf interviews “bio-artist” Adam Zaretsky, who exults in the prospect of using genetic manipulation to create children with “ostrich anuses and aardvark tongues and pig noses” as part of a push for genuinely radical tolerance. “What would degenerate human transgenic children look like?” Zaretsky muses. “What would be another aesthetic than Michaelangelo’s perfection of the human ideal? We could start with Cubism. What would Picasso make as a baby?”

Friedersdorf admits that Zaretsky “is the first person to evoke in me a gut desire for enforced sameness and suppressed diversity––a visceral reaction I cannot recall having before.” As Friedersdorf goes on to explain,

sanctity is a powerful driver of moral intuition for many, and [] lots of Americans who aren’t particularly prone to disgust would, when confronted with antlered, aardvark-tongued babies, agree with Leon Kass.

“Repugnance,” he once wrote, “revolts against the excesses of human willfulness, warning us not to transgress what is unspeakably profound. Indeed, in this age in which everything is held to be permissible so long as it is freely done, in which our given human nature no longer commands respect, in which our bodies are regarded as mere instruments of our autonomous rational wills, repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity.”

But what happens if that voice of repugnance no longer speaks? At a gala event midway through the film, a young woman wanders about with gaping facial incisions, murmuring about her desire to be “exposed.” For all intents and purposes, she seems suffused with transcendent joy as she walks through the throngs of people about her.

What might drive her to such acts? Decades ago, Emmanuel Levinas argued that, on a phenomenological level, it is the presence of the face of others that immediately summons us to do justice, to behave ethically. “Crimes of the Future,” though, suggests that Levinas’s account was incomplete. Perhaps the face alone does not impose such an obligation: rather it is the wounded face, the bleeding face, that calls us to act and to help. And so, correlatively, it is only in performative expressions of our own vulnerability that we can “draw the attention” of others and impose a moral claim upon them. In a society where traditional morality has been long abandoned, absolute exposure, absolute suffering, is the only truth that still carries weight.

Is that the world we want? And if not, what should we do to stop it? The question remains unanswered; indeed, the film’s dark closing moments suggest that it is too late to change, and that the posthuman must prevail. 

It is not, however, a destiny in which Cronenberg seems to exult. Indeed, “Crimes of the Future” is the ultimate late-career movie from Cronenberg, one that—intentionally or not—serves as a kind of philosophical referendum on the director’s whole corpus. In the face of an ascendant materialistic transhumanism, “Crimes” leaves open the whisper of a possibility that the body might not be meaningless after all—that, contra Tenser, it might not represent the final truth of reality.

And that is a very arresting thought in its own right.

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2022 in Sci-Fi

 

Movie Review: “Jurassic World: Dominion”

As film titles go, few are more elegantly suggestive than “Jurassic World: Dominion.” Here, the allusion—to Genesis 1:28, in which God commands Adam and Eve to exercise authority over the beasts of earth and sea and sky—is inverted: the dominion asserting itself is of a far more primordial sort. In the wake of 2015’s “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” dinosaurs were released onto the global mainland and swiftly began establishing breeding populations—to say nothing of those species that fell into the hands of unscrupulous biotech firms. The world, accordingly, now finds itself struggling to cope with these transformed ecosystems and the resurgence of prehistoric threats. Dominion indeed, but not man’s.

But for me, the word conjures up a different—though no less relevant—set of associations. Some years ago, I read Matthew Scully’s book Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, which approaches the question of nonhuman life from a distinctive direction. Scully, a former Bush 43 speechwriter, does not argue—as some activists have—for a collapse of the animal-human distinction, but the opposite: it is the rational powers of human beings that confer on them a duty to treat animal life compassionately, recognizing that in exercising power over the nonhuman world, humans exercise power over lives that bear an analogous resemblance to their own. Our beasts, for Scully, are never machines—not even if we breed them for our own purposes—but living souls of a sort, and we owe them more than suffering and exploitation.

And it is this curious dialectic—fear of ancient monsters juxtaposed alongside affirmation of their value as living creatures—that underpins the whole “Jurassic World” trilogy, in some fashion or other. Such a stance is a move beyond where Steven Spielberg or Michael Crichton were content to leave the series: for them, mere awe was enough, with some cautionary ideas about the unlimited advance of science thrown in. The question of compassion never really came to the fore. But it does here.

“Dominion” picks up several years after the close of “Fallen Kingdom.” Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard, live in a secluded cabin raising their adopted daughter Maisie, the product of illicit experiments in human cloning. Biotech giant BioSyn, in the hands of villainous Lewis Dodgson (remember him paying off Dennis Nedry all the way back in 1993?) is developing a strain of genetically modified locusts, infused with Cretaceous Period DNA, to wipe out competitors’ crops and seize control of global food markets. And the world’s dinosaurs are, slowly but steadily, being rounded up for factory farms, fighting rings, and mercenary cabals. Times are dark.

Enter “Jurassic Park” protagonists Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), Alan Grant (Sam Neill), and Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), who reunite in the hopes of taking BioSyn’s conspiracy down and maybe, in the process, tying up some interpersonal loose ends. And when Maisie ends up kidnapped by BioSyn goons, Owen and Claire—along with franchise newcomer Kayla (DeWanda Wise) join the mission, thus uniting franchise leads old and new. Their journey ultimately takes them from the snowy forests of the American West through a Mediterranean criminal underground to a hidden BioSyn compound and dinosaur preserve, where creatures both familiar and strange await.

For all the dinosaur mayhem that plays out onscreen—and yes, there is plenty of it—this story is far less about prehistoric creatures than about human beings in all their messy particularity and weakness. The driving threat animating the film isn’t a theropod with massive claws and teeth, but (once again) unchecked scientific hubris in the name of profit. As such, “Dominion” feels like it does better justice to Michael Crichton’s thematic legacy than any other “Jurassic Park” film since the original: tyrannosaurs and velociraptors are frightening, to be sure, but what’s even scarier is the prospect that technological breakthroughs might go much further. The world into which director Colin Trevorrow thrusts his audience—a world where dinosaurs roam the plains and mosasaurs prowl beneath the waves—is also a world where bad actors will use these resources in different contexts for private gain. Perhaps audiences won’t like that locust plagues are a “bigger”-scale threat than dinosaurs this time around, but that’s far truer to Crichton’s original set of concerns and the saga’s own internal logic.

This focus on characters over spectacle pays off in other ways, too. By the time the third act rolls around and BioSyn’s compound begins to fall apart—as such facilities so often do in this series—the visual callbacks to prior films come thick and fast. We’ve got a flipped car being attacked by a giant predator (this time a Giganotosaurus), a face-off with snarling raptors, a trek through darkened hallways to restart a power system, and so on. Normally, this sort of thing would come off as shameless pandering to a jaded fanbase, an excess of the references that “South Park” once memorably called “memberberries.” ‘Member that you liked this the first time around? You did, didn’t you?

But here, Trevorrow does something quite different: in throwing these characters back into familiar situations, he offers them a chance to respond differently. Just as no one steps in the same river twice, so too no one ever responds to a crisis in the same way—and here, characters like Alan, Ellie, and Ian are given the chance to face dinosaur danger again and respond with confidence and agency. No longer are they victims of fate trying desperately to escape a crisis situation: they are survivors who know what needs to be done and how to accomplish it. Running and screaming are kept to a minimum.

For longtime fans of the series, this is powerful, even eucatastrophic stuff—a reclamation and redemption of the past, rather like the alternate-history climax that caps off Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.” It presents the possibility that perhaps all that bloodshed wasn’t for nothing—that the chaos of the past has, in a way, forged these characters into stronger and better people despite it all.

None of this is to say that the dinosaur action isn’t good, because it is—especially a standoff on a frozen lake and an extended motorcycle chase set in Malta that feels like “The Bourne Identity” with raptors. But unlike, say, “Jurassic Park III,” here the carnage doesn’t overshadow the bigger themes. This is a fast-paced film—even at two-and-a-half hours, it virtually never drags—but some of its best moments are its quietest.

Early on in 1997’s “The Lost World,” there’s a lingering shot of four hired hunters trying to wrestle a rearing Parasaurolophus to the ground, in the hopes of capturing it and shipping it off to “Jurassic Park San Diego.” The Parasaurolophus bucks and fights back, tossing handlers into the air as it strains against its bonds. By contrast, “Dominion” opens with Owen lassoing a member of the same species and subduing it single-handedly, speaking to it gently and calmingly as he leads it through the forest. It’s a powerful, if understated, reference to earlier chapters of the series, and one that underscores this new film’s central message.

At the heart of this sequel trilogy is the principle that just because these creatures were genetically manipulated—designed to be “theme park monsters”—doesn’t mean that we have a right to do with them what we please.  Rather, on this view life as such is valuable—a principle that Maisie affirms in the closing moments of “Fallen Kingdom,” when she releases a herd into the wild for the simple reason that “they’re alive. Like me.” That’s a very different moral vision from the original film, which was quite content to abandon its dinosaurs to a slow death by lysine deficiency. And it’s a moral vision that the trilogy’s antagonists decidedly do not share—at one point, a BioSyn scientist describes Maisie as the “world’s most valuable intellectual property” rather than as an individual girl with an individual life history.

In “Dominion,” the heroes’ goal isn’t extermination of the world’s burgeoning dinosaur population, but the establishment of a new ecological balance that neither reveres nor seeks to eradicate the prehistoric creatures. Moreover, such a goal is not an end to scientific progress as such—Maisie herself turns out to hold the biological key to solving a serious problem—but the affirmation of a kind of progress that takes life seriously rather than manipulating and objectifying it. (It’s worth noting that Crichton himself eventually moved in this direction: 2006’s “Next” features a genetically modified human-chimpanzee hybrid who is ultimately adopted by a family and cared for as a kind of “child,” rather than sent away for study and vivisection. This is not an affirmation of such hybridization experiments, but an answer to what it means to do justice and extend compassion after the experiments have already occurred.)

Suffice it to say that, in the broadest terms, “Dominion”—and its two predecessors—are intriguing explorations of what it means to live humanely in the face of technological change, once that change has become irreversible. And as the years pass, I suspect they will age very well. Beneath all the summer-blockbuster bombast and CGI spectacle is a human story of surprising weight, one that manages to retroactively improve even its weaker predecessors.

At the end of the day, this is less a movie about dinosaurs than it is about us as human beings. And that’s exactly the way it should be.

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2022 in Sci-Fi

 
 
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