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Crimes of the Future review – Cronenberg’s slightly creaky tribute​ ​to his own past

David Cronenberg’s latest feature shares a title with an experimental film he made in 1970. In the wake of the original Crimes of the Future, Cronenberg would effectively invent, refine and then move on from “‘body horror” cinema, leaving a genre-defining canon of fantasy films (Shivers, Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly) that used the mutations of the flesh to discuss matters of life and death. Since 1988’s Dead Ringers, the Canadian auteur’s preoccupations have been more psychological (notwithstanding the mugwumps of Naked Lunch and the quirky genre return of eXistenZ); from the sexual pathology of Crash, through the stagey Freud/Jung melodrama of A Dangerous Method to the biting Hollywood satire of Maps to the Stars.

This new Crimes of the Future (the script for which dates back to the late 90s) plays like a throwback to Cronenberg’s earliest outre genre outings and also a greatest hits compilation of familiar scrungy themes and fleshy sci-fi motifs from his back catalogue. It may not be vintage fare, but if anyone’s going to do a slightly creaky tribute to the films that once made Cronenberg an icon of thoughtful horror, it might as well be him.

From the cascadingly squishy tones of composer Howard Shore’s throbbing theme, which accompanies the blood-red “interior decor” of the opening titles, we find ourselves in a shipwrecked near future where the human body has been deprived of pain and is in revolt due to “accelerated evolution syndrome”. Viggo Mortensen, who brought real physical oomph to A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, is Saul Tenser, a performance artist whose body has become a hotbed of new organ growth – tumorous outcrops that are removed and displayed during public surgery by his partner, Caprice (Léa Seydoux). Each new organ is lovingly tattooed in situ by Caprice, creating a unique marking that can be filed with the National Organ Registry, established to keep track of anarchic human development. The registry is still a modest affair, run from shabby offices by the seemingly bureaucratic Wippet (Don McKellar) and the tremulously excitable Timlin (Kristen Stewart). “Surgery is sex, isn’t it?” whispers Timlin after becoming ecstatically aroused by one of Caprice and Saul’s performances. “The new sex.” Later, Saul will tell her: “I’m just not very good at the old sex.”

Meanwhile, in a tandem plot strand, a young boy we meet eating plastic in the film’s arresting first act becomes the subject of a proposed performance that would lead Saul and Caprice into uncharted territory. “Performance art is all consensual,” Caprice tells Lang (Scott Speedman), a radical who wants to show the world that it’s “time for human evolution to sync up with human technology – we’ve got to start feeding on our own industrial waste.”

Cronenberg has said that “fans will see key references to other scenes and moments from my other films”, and there’s a certain fun to be had watching Elliot Mantle’s dream of “beauty contests for the insides of bodies” from Dead Ringers come to fruition, or revisiting the “long live the new flesh” mantras of Videodrome. Diehard Cronenbergians will be relieved, too, that CGI effects have augmented rather than supplanted the gorgeously monstrous physical apparitions of yore, with regular production designer Carol Spier lending a familiar, distinctive edge to this still-tactile biomechanical world.

Yet for all its nostalgic pleasures and sardonic nods, this remains a footnote to the main body of Cronenberg’s work – a playful step back rather than an evolutionary leap forward. Yes, a few cinematic taboos are traversed, but we’re a long way from the days when Crash could become a headline-baiting cause célèbre that had the Daily Mail and Westminster council screaming for bans and boycotts. Here, it’s the slightly naff softcore elements that alarm, not least an irrelevant sapphic romp with a sci-fi sarcophagus that feels like an outtake from a straight-to-video 80s Roger Corman flick.

The ill-judged comedic elements don’t help, with Stewart’s (deliberately?) absurd staccato performance teetering awkwardly on the brink of breathless self-parody. By contrast, Mortensen and Seydoux play it deliciously straight, jumping through the well-rehearsed philosophical and physical hoops with elegant ease, conjuring a sense of yearning humanity that saves the production from descending into silliness… just about.

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