‘Crimes of the Future’ and the Evolution of David Cronenberg

The new movie from the legend of body horror is full of considered ambivalence

Corey Atad
Surgery Is The New Sex

“I have unfinished business with the future,” said David Cronenberg, announcing his long-awaited return to body horror with Crimes of the Future. The Canadian director hadn’t made a movie quite in that vein since 1999’s eXistenZ, but given that film’s forward-looking vision of a virtual reality, one might’ve thought his business with the future largely complete. It’s not an accident, though, that the real reference to “the future” in Cronenberg’s cheeky statement was, in fact, to his second feature, an experimental science-fiction film from 1970, also titled Crimes of the Future, about a dermatologist who falls in with a group of pedophiles after a plague wipes out all sexually mature women. The new film and the old have nothing actually to do with each other, except perhaps as point/counterpoint. Fifty-two years on, Cronenberg’s formal acuity is sharper and his ideas — about medicine, about psychology, about the flesh — have matured considerably. The result is a carefully considered uncertainty, in which the wizened perspective of an older artist befits material whose boundary pushing is most evident in the spaces between the surface horrors. A far cry from his original fresh-out-of-college experiment in shock.

In the new Crimes of the Future, shock is mundane. Viggo Mortensen plays Saul Tenser, a performance artist of a particular sort. In a world wrecked by climate catastrophe and industrial waste, where most people no longer feel pain and some select humans are mutating and growing brand new organs (Accelerated Evolution Syndrome, they call it), Tenser puts on grotesquely clinical shows of his surgeries to cut those organs out. Léa Seydoux is both his lover and the woman wielding the knife, a distinction blurred in classic Cronenbergian fashion and later underlined by an admiring Kristen Stewart, who remarks, “Surgery is the new sex.” Where the director might once have bought into that sort of out-of-bounds provocation, pushing the audience to the limits as he did to greatest effect in 1996’s Crash, here he is decidedly more ambivalent. Surgery might be the new sex, but not all sex is good or fun or interesting, and most of it isn’t worth the attention of an audience other than dull art snobs whose sense for the outré has less to do with provoking revolutionary thought than flattering egos.

If re-using the title invites us to think back over the gruesome terrors of Cronenberg’s filmography, it is also an invitation to consider the role of skepticism in his work. From his very first shorts, he was a filmmaker deeply mistrustful of institutions like psychiatry, medical research, and the tech industry. Each claiming knowledge about those things which appear to make us human: the mind, the flesh and the technology we use to interface those bodily attributes with the world around us. In 2022, the themes haven’t changed, but Cronenberg’s relationship to them — and to himself — most certainly has. Embodied by proxy in Tenser’s troubled artist, whose painful mutations and acts of literal sacrifice inspire and influence other (lesser) artists, the director evinces a depressed rootlessness in a cinematic world he birthed but no longer knows quite what to do with.

As a portrait of the artist as an aging man, Crimes of the Future is fulfilling precisely in its refusal of easy fulfillment.

Crimes of the Future thus exists in an unusual space for the filmmaker. Filmed in a dilapidated Greece, with its rough stone walls shot in clinically lit darkness, it’s a long way off from the odd concrete and glass Canadian urban architecture he so lovingly made alien in much of his earlier work. A budgetary consideration, no doubt, but also a reflection of how the world has caught up with Cronenberg’s troubling visions of where humanity is headed. When an underground organization of plastic-eaters in the film seeks to adapt humanity to the environmental degradation we have wrought, the troubling questions raised about our bodily relationship to the physical world come across less as disturbing dorm-room pontification than a picture of our present ecological reality. Cronenberg has said that his script for the film was originally penned not long after eXistenZ, and if that’s the case, its concerns are shockingly prescient. Wrestling with how we shape the world is one thing. Reckoning with how that world might shape us in turn is yet another. And in Crimes of the Future, Cronenberg goes a step further, assessing the morality of going along now the damage is done.

The film’s autobiographical elements — of an artist unsettled by the effect of his art on himself and the world — find union in its bleak ambivalence about humanity’s place in the future. The ambivalence is key. It’s not just that Cronenberg doesn’t pick a side, but that there really aren’t any sides at all when confronted with collapsing systems supporting culture, society, the planet, and life itself. Only in the context of that pessimism does eating plastic start to seem like more than just a viable option, but perhaps a moral necessity, and even an optimistic one in terms of human survival. Tenser, who as it turns out is also a police informant, is caught right in the middle of these moral quandaries, engaged in an endless dialectic with various characters (from detectives to art dealers to public health bureaucrats to revolutionaries) on matters that have no answers but the choices he makes, and often the ones he declines to make. As a portrait of the artist as an aging man, Crimes of the Future is fulfilling precisely in its refusal of easy fulfillment. That’s a young person’s game.

Body horror is an odd sub-genre. In practical terms originated by Cronenberg himself with early films like Shivers and The Brood, it’s a mode of filmmaking defined by its graphic approach to bodily mutation and gore. A gross-out genre, often consumed by pure spectacle. Not so in Cronenberg’s work, which has regularly used body horror for outward manifestations of concerns about psychological dynamics. At first glance, Crimes of the Future appears devoid of psychology, playing instead in a pool of politics and sociology and aesthetics. But then you remember that the Inner Beauty Pageant referenced in the film is itself an idea lifted from a concept in Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, among his most psychologically real and disturbing works. That unlikely connection between the film about people in the future spontaneously — or maybe wilfully? — growing new organs, and the one about twin gynaecologists dealing with warped sibling interdependence, dark sexual frustration, and wild substance abuse, is not down to simple self-thievery for the sake of plot. Within the evolution of Cronenberg’s career, the fractured psychology of Dead Ringers is not absent from Crimes of the Future, it’s just become a given. The fact of our existence in the Anthropocene imprinted on our psyches, with only the flesh — inner and outer — left up for grabs.

Maybe that’s why the film often plays less as sci-fi horror than dark comedy (its only resemblance to the original, very deadpan Crimes of the Future). Faced with the impossibilities of living in the world we’ve created, laughing at the absurdity feels only rational. Cronenberg stares this reality down, though, compelling us to consider that there really may be nothing more left for us, while in his sly way — check out that man’s devious grin in photos! — proposing that there is still much left to do. What exactly we do, he cannot say. His work is only a diagnosis. The film opens with a mother murdering her child. It ends after that child has been carved open, his defaced insides displayed for an aghast world, with no intrinsic meaning to be found except that which might be made. This is the future Cronenberg gives us.

Corey Atad is a writer based in Toronto. His work has appeared at Esquire, Hazlitt and The Baffler and he has an unhealthy obsession with Air Bud.