Crimes of the Future is a 2022 science-fiction drama written and directed by David Cronenberg about a performance artist in the future, Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen). His main ability is the growth of new organs, with his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux) taking them out to a crowd to emphasize their unnaturalness. Eventually, he gets entangled with evolutionists who believe the next stage of humanity involves the ability to consume synthetic materials; the government, of course, wants to maintain a status quo on what it means to be human.
Right off the bat, Crimes of the Future finds itself in familiar Cronenberg territory. The legendary Canadian director made a name for himself with films like Crash, The Fly, and Videodrome, which dissect the difference between depravity and decency, beauty and ugliness—and show the tendency for the lines themselves to be blurry.
Crimes of the Future traverses through a lot of the same themes, whether it’s body modification and mutation (The Fly); questions of what the culture we consume means for society, and how far we are willing to go for art even in its most depraved (Videodrome); and finding sexual pleasure in unconventional and often allegedly-inhuman ways (Crash).
His return to these previous thematic grounds, however, comes with a brand-new macro perspective informed by the changes that the world has experienced, allowing him to go to places and interrogate ideas that he might otherwise not have gone through had he made it earlier in his career. There’s certainly a larger societal show in how Cronenberg goes about this film, and it feels like a culmination of his previous work while trodding toward the future and what that could mean for humanity as a whole.
Crimes of the Future is very loaded, and there is a lot to talk about in it in terms of what it tackles as themes and concerns throughout the film.
At first, the body mutations and mutilations are presented as a metaphor for art, and it’s very effective albeit unsubtle in connecting the literal taking out of organs to how artists take out part of themselves to create personal artwork.
They talk about what the art of Saul means to him, as a way of taking out what he believes to be inorganic growth in his body. Compared to many of his peers—one of which is a dancer with nonfunctional ears all over their body—Saul’s performance art has a personal relationship and purpose.
It’s a nice, simple analogy, and the film makes it feel like the normal progression of how humanity views entertainment: we currently have bodybuilding competitions and wrestling, and Marina Abramović and David Blaine and Tom Cruise. Why wouldn’t we turn an ability to grow organs into performance art? A simple enough metaphor, and one that Cronenberg does explore the consequences of: from the idea of an Inner Beauty Pageant to judge these growths and mutations, to a government bureau ensuring that these things are regulated.
Then the film uses this future world to discuss the politics of pollution and the effects it might have on how the human body evolves. At some point in the story, Saul meets a group of revolutionary evolutionists who plan to grow organs that can eat and digest synthetic, toxic material, and their experiments on the human body have yielded extraordinary results that could change humanity as a whole.
With the news recently talking about microplastics being everywhere, this plot point is strangely relevant. It poses questions about whether there is an ethical way to deal with pollution when governments and corporations have refused to do so, or if it is morally okay to attempt to integrate the ability to consume pollutants naturally and potentially doom the next generation.
It is hard to write about a film like this because of how many layers it has: there’s the art angle at the surface, the political activism angle, the question about what is essentially bioessentialism versus being allowed to own and modify your own body the way that you wish, and the meta-commentary on how we consume art and what we desire from the artists.
Any focus on one of these would be fine, of course, but the interesting thing about the film is how Cronenberg is able to sew these disparate ideas together—ideas that tend to clash largely because of how varied it is within the world—and find a cathartic way of bringing them together that’s both deeply strange and thought-provoking.
The actual plot of the film revolves around a young boy (Sozos Sotiris) whose father (Scott Speedman) claims is the first human to have organically grown organs that can eat and digest toxic materials on their own. The father wants Saul and Caprice to do a live autopsy of his body in order to show the world the extent of human evolution.
It’s a rather provocative idea to do so, both doing an autopsy of a child for art’s sake and the political ramifications of showing the possibilities of human evolution. And it helps tie together these contrasting strains of the film toward what appears to be Cronenberg’s larger point: progress will not be stopped, and it is our choice as to whether to move with the future or stand in its way.
Throughout the film, Saul always seemed to struggle with the growths in his body, seeing them as inorganic. That’s the point of getting rid of them in a performance, after all; to show that these tumors will not be taking control of his body. But the movement of toxic waste eaters, led by the father, slowly changes Saul’s mind.
It all comes to a head at the boy’s autopsy, and everyone discovers that his body had been ransacked beforehand by the government to cover up the organic growth. It’s Saul’s moment of realization: the growths on his body aren’t tumors or destructive forces. They are organic, his to have, something that can’t be stopped and, more importantly, shouldn’t be stopped.
Artistic breakthrough of the highest level.
Crimes of the Future is a dark and messy film. It is full of ideas about how human nature works, of how human beings evolve and stay the same even as the world changes. It’s filled with long, philosophical musings about sex, art, evolution, and revolution that seem to ramble on at times with no point. It’s also not as visually provocative or inventive as Cronenberg’s earlier films, with the dated ‘90s industrial look he seemed to have chosen for this film.
And yet, it is probably one of the best films of 2022, one unafraid to be contrarian in its exploration of humanity. It delves deep into its subject matter and is willing to go to the strange and stupid corners of its world to paint a picture of a society stuck between the hazy, dark future and the false bright nostalgia of the past. It weaves multiple conversations of art and politics in the film, and figures out an ambiguous, yet satisfying way to tie them together. It wallows in the dirt of humanity and is unafraid of what it finds.