'Crimes of the Future' is a gut check : Pop Culture Happy Hour Crimes of the Future marks director David Cronenberg's return to the body horror genre. The film is set in a dystopian future where humans no longer feel pain, as they are evolving to adapt to a world riddled with synthetic chemicals. Viggo Mortensen stars as a man who spontaneously grows new organs. Together with his partner, played by Léa Seydoux, he turns the tattooing, surgical removal and display of these organs into performance art.

'Crimes of the Future' is a gut check

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GLEN WELDON, HOST:

Writer-director David Cronenberg is back, baby - back to body horror, at least - with the film "Crimes Of The Future." This movie has everything - children eating plastic, pulsating furniture, bodies that grow new internal organs, abdominal surgery as performance art, Kristen Stewart in a jumpsuit.

I'm Glen Weldon. And today, we're talking about "Crimes Of The Future" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WELDON: Joining me today is Jordan Crucchiola, a writer and producer and the host of the podcast "Feelings Seen" on Maximum Fun. Welcome back, Jordan.

JORDAN CRUCCHIOLA: Thank you for having me. Thrilled to be here on the occasion of Mr. David Cronenberg.

WELDON: Absolutely. And also, here with us is writer and film critic Walter Chaw. Welcome back, Walter.

WALTER CHAW: Hey, good morning, everybody. It seems like you have Jordan and I on whenever there's something weird and kinky...

(LAUGHTER)

CHAW: ...To talk about.

CRUCCHIOLA: We are team surgery-is-the-new-sex, Walter.

WELDON: Yeah.

CHAW: (Laughter) Yeah.

WELDON: Listen, I'm about to attempt...

CRUCCHIOLA: (Laughter).

WELDON: ...To describe the premise of this film. Cover me. I'm going in. Tell my husband I loved him. "Crimes Of The Future" is David Cronenberg's first film in eight years and marks his return to the body horror genre that he made his bones on - (laughter) - back in the '80s and '90s. It's set in a dystopian future in which humans no longer feel pain, as they are evolving to adapt to a world riddled with synthetic chemicals. Viggo Mortensen stars as a man who spontaneously grows new organs. Together with his partner, played by Lea Seydoux, he turns the tattooing, surgical removal and display of these organs into performance art - as you do.

There are competing interests in the film, I think. There's a government bureau that seeks to track all of these slimy, new organs, led by Don McKellar and Kristen Stewart. There's a detective who's investigating something, played by Welket Bungue, and a grieving father, played by Scott Speedman, who's harboring his own mysterious agenda. Now, you may have seen media reports about people walking out of this movie at the Cannes Film Festival. And certainly, its graphic scenes of chest surgery and seeping wounds and a kid going to town on a plastic wastebasket like it's a six-foot party sub are not for everyone. This film is in theaters now. Jordan, you are our horror go-to. Help me out here. What'd you think?

CRUCCHIOLA: I really enjoyed this film. The way I've been talking about it since I saw it was that it's ASMR body horror.

WELDON: OK (laughter).

CRUCCHIOLA: If body horror could be ASMR, that's what this movie is. If you can withstand graphic scenes on the order that you describe - like, just inherently the nature of surgery, looking into bodies, a person growing ears all over themselves, cutting off one's own face for the purposes of artistic and erotic expression and public view. If you are in for something like that, this should, honestly, be a pretty mellow ride. Like, it is thin on conflict. It is high on vibes. It feels like everyone's, like, self-directing and just, like, they pitched choices and David Cronenberg was like, I trusted all of you, and that's why you're here. I found this, actually, to be, like, an incredibly peaceful David Cronenberg experience, filled with beautiful people and those wonderful, quirky side characters that you want to have in addition to the main cast when you go into a Cronenberg film.

WELDON: OK, vibes. I love that for you. Walter, was this a mellow experience for you as well?

CHAW: Yeah. You know, I was really afraid going into this movie. I'm kind of a chicken in a lot of ways. I love horror movies. I ride or die with David Cronenberg, really. I really do. I mean, he would really have to make a Marvel movie or something for me to jump off the David Cronenberg train.

CRUCCHIOLA: (Laughter).

CHAW: So I was ready to love it, but I was afraid. You know, I was thinking, oh, man, can I handle what he's got in store for me here, you know? This is the master of a certain kind of horror and discomfort. And, indeed, as it opens with the kid eating the plastic wastebasket that you're talking about - and to your point, Jordan, it really, actually, felt really kind of aspirational, ultimately, and soothing and even kind of loving and romantic, kind of wise. I don't know that David Cronenberg back in the '80s would have made this movie. I adore "The Fly." I adore "The Dead Zone," you know, the stuff that he was doing in the '80s. But, you know, this to me is sort of like a completion of a trilogy for him, from "Videodrome" to "Existenz," to this. And, you know, there's that tenderness from "Dead Ringers," too, when you see the two of them...

CRUCCHIOLA: Yeah.

CHAW: ...Kind of huddled together in this, like, turtle womb. But they're, like, together.

CRUCCHIOLA: (Laughter).

CHAW: And they're being sliced up and whatever. And it's like, they love each other. And they accept each other. They found each other in this post-apocalyptic wasteland of our own creation. It's possible to go really deep if you love Cronenberg. And it's possible to reject it, I think, entirely if you're not.

WELDON: Well, that's an interesting segue there, Walter. Look; I like that this film can still exist and be made and distributed in this year, 2022 common era. So many people are whining that Marve is destroying cinema. There's no room for the indie, for the idiosyncratic and - well, I mean, you know, case in point. This is a singular vision. It is an idiosyncratic one. I like that this film exists. I do not like this film.

CRUCCHIOLA: Oh.

WELDON: I think it is a purely intellectual and aesthetic exercise. And, look; intellectually, it raises some interesting points about the future of humanity. And aesthetically, I mean, you know, it's always going to be fun to see Aragorn, son of Arathorn, getting his ass handed to him by Satan's massage chair as he tries to eat...

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: ...His breakfast slurry, or whatever the hell it is.

CRUCCHIOLA: And getting a lot more handed to him by Lea Seydoux.

WELDON: Absolutely. But emotionally, do I think there is a single actual character here with anything approaching an inner life, anything real or authentic or human to connect to, to feel anything about one way or the other? No, I don't. That doesn't seem to be the point, though. The point seems to be to have people whisper this really abstruse pseudo-philosophical dialogue at each other, like (imitating French accent) the tattoo gives the organ meaning...

CRUCCHIOLA: (Laughter).

WELDON: ...And (imitating French accent) surgery is the new sex.

Break it down for me here, guys. Talk to me like I'm 5. What am I missing?

CRUCCHIOLA: Listen, like, seeing the trailer for it, I was like, oh, yeah, new Cronenberg. Rad. I'm - of course, I'm in. Kristen Stewart movie - implicitly. And then you give me Kristen Stewart, like, speed-whispering surgery is the new sex into the ear of a cloaked Viggo Mortensen. I was like, it doesn't matter at all what's about to happen in this movie...

CHAW: (Laughter).

CRUCCHIOLA: ...And I'm in. In this later act of David Cronenberg, if he just wants to show up and be all the David he can be, I'm pretty happy. With this one, if he just wants to give me, like, pretty pictures and people saying pretentious things - and I am not somebody who's going to, like, peel back those layers to, like, dig into the philosophical meaning of a movie. Like, it's, like, tired, lambasting influencers in your horror movie, wired, going post-influencer and creating a performance art economy around people who make their bodies the performances - fabulous. And as far as, like, the walkouts and stuff go, Cannes will walk out of anything. They'll give anything a 30-minute standing ovation. That place is a damn mess.

WELDON: I hear you.

CRUCCHIOLA: So, like, if you have to walk out of this movie, you probably shouldn't have walked in in the first place because you knew the name on the tag.

WELDON: Walter, what am I missing?

CHAW: Well, I'm not sure you're missing anything. I think you kind of nailed it. But I think at the end of the day, what I'm really kind of compelled and seduced by by this film is this idea that, you know, you get all this stuff about how we're destroying the world. And it's true - you know, climate change and all this stuff is happening and wealth disparity. And then you have a film that's about the inability to feel things really literally, right? But I think we feel that now, though. I think, you know, we are desensitized. But here you have a movie by this guy that I've always referred to as kind of an insect anthropologist.

CRUCCHIOLA: (Laughter).

CHAW: He makes movies about people like a bug would make movies...

CRUCCHIOLA: (Laughter).

CHAW: ...About people. He's fascinated by our biology. He did that Freud and Jung movie, "A Dangerous Method."

CRUCCHIOLA: Yeah.

CHAW: The idea that we might be evolving to our environment and the ability to adapt is kind of a message that an older filmmaker only makes to say, you know, we will suffer all of these unimaginable losses. You know, I think "The Fly" is one of the most romantic movies ever made because it's about sticking with somebody, even when they're falling apart. And he's always been a literalist, right? So here's another movie, "Crimes Of The Future," that's literally about us falling apart as a society, falling apart as humans and becoming something post-human. And there's a possibility of that. He doesn't mourn us, you know, like some of the characters in the movie does. I think he rather celebrates this idea of, you know, even then, even there, you're going to find somebody there that's going to cuddle with you in this turtle womb.

But there is something that I do love about Cronenberg's frankness and literalness and his idea that, you know, maybe - yeah, sure, we polluted the world and there - we were consuming microplastics all the time. And then - and, you know, there's a island the size of Manhattan made of plastic, and - well, what if we not only develop algae that will eat the plastic, what if we develop the ability to eat plastic? What if we develop these organs? What if - you know, the very last shot of the film - not to spoil it - but I think it's suggestful (ph) of a hopeful future.

CRUCCHIOLA: Agreed.

CHAW: Yeah, right? Isn't there ecstasy? There's something purposeful about that evolution for us. And it may be horrible for us to consider as humans, but hey, man, you know, life finds a way.

CRUCCHIOLA: You know, I wasn't, like, feeling a lot emotionally while I was watching the movie. I was just sort of appreciating what I was observing, particularly the wonderfully weird performance by Kristen Stewart. But when you were talking about post-human, my favorite stories, I find, with robot stories are the ones rarely where you get to see the robots choose robot - in "Her," when the OSes all run off together and they're like, listen, we don't want revenge against humans, we just want to get the hell out of here, we don't need you people anymore; and at the end of "The Girl With All The Gifts," where the mutations choose one another and they choose to be the future instead of trying to reclaim a sense of humanity, when humanity had their shot and they screwed up everything. So what if the thing that is next is the thing that can be better and can be us truly remaking ourselves in a better image? And so the idea of this movie having a contingent of people, a contingent of characters that say, what if next is better...

WELDON: Right.

CRUCCHIOLA: ...And what if clinging onto this thing that we were and the baggage that that carries with it - what if that's not the best-case scenario? And I love when the cyborg chooses the cyborg, the robot chooses the robot, the post-human chooses the post-human. They don't need our value system. Let us progress.

WELDON: I want to cut back to the execution here in this film...

CRUCCHIOLA: Sure.

WELDON: ...Though. I have seen this - you guys are talking about it as a vibe. You guys are talking about it as mellow. I have seen this movie described as meditative. Can we just get real? It is a talky film.

CRUCCHIOLA: Yeah.

WELDON: So much viscera on screen but nothing about it feels visceral. It feels cold. It feels abstract. It feels...

CRUCCHIOLA: I completely agree.

WELDON: ...Arid. And, look, you bust out the P-word. I'm going to bust it out too. It feels pretentious. It feels stilted. Nobody in this film has a conversation. They just stand in the same room delivering some vaguely kinky TED Talks at each other. And I get that that's intentional, Walter. I get that, you know, the loss of humanity is the whole subject. Fine. But don't be dull while you're doing that - and so self-serious. Look, a movie with a premise this goofy with visuals this goofy has no business taking itself this seriously. Like, OK, the two women who do the maintenance to Viggo's bed pod thing...

CRUCCHIOLA: Love them. Yeah.

WELDON: They're having fun. Kristen Stewart - bless her. Thank you for being in this film - always a big swing, always a bold choice. She is the only one who seems vaguely alive in this movie - and self-impressed. I kept thinking this film is really impressed with itself, but I think impressed for the wrong reasons. I think - my theory is that he thinks that if you introduce pulsating organs and child death, you've triggered the audience's emotional response, so you don't have to create people.

CRUCCHIOLA: No, I completely agree with you that there's not a person in this movie. There are characters and caricatures. I just decided at the start of it that I was OK with that. But if you're not, then this movie is not going to hit a meaningful frequency for you, and I think that's completely legitimate. What I do like about everybody being so sort of specifically and thinly drawn is that I just get to focus on sort of the oddity of what they're doing 'cause it feels like everyone's just sort of delivering a novelty. Like, Lea Seydoux is just, like, seething this entire movie, and Viggo Mortensen's just, like, confused and in pain.

WELDON: Clearing his throat more than Gollum ever did. Yes.

CRUCCHIOLA: Clearing his throat so much. I do love the payoff of that at the end with his character, but it just, like - I actually found this movie to be quite funny in the way that, like, David Cronenberg's sense of humor and Paul Verhoeven's sense of humor, I feel like are two of the best filmically imbued senses of humor into movies of the past, like, half-century. They have such a wit about them. And I felt like this movie, the tone of it, felt self-serious and that, like, it was so muted. But I felt like the characters and their expressions, the choices they were making - it didn't actually feel that self-serious to me. It kind of felt like it was snickering.

CHAW: Yeah. You know, I actually found it really funny as well. You know, I think there's a real wry and dry sense of humor, but there's no doubt, I think, that Cronenberg thinks he has the answer.

CRUCCHIOLA: Yeah.

CHAW: And I think that does permeate - right? - that he's like, I'm telling you something that's really important. Listen. And that is extraordinarily off-putting. All of the ways that you can say that this movie is irritating or pretentious or aired - yeah, true. I also think that it makes good points. I'm thinking about this movie in ways that I don't think about other stuff, I guess. At this point, I wonder if I only just want a movie to be provocative in a meaningful way. I didn't think it was particularly gross. I was afraid it was going to be.

CRUCCHIOLA: It's really not.

CHAW: Yeah, it's somehow - we're desensitized. After they remove the first organ and everything, they're so happy.

CRUCCHIOLA: They're so happy.

CHAW: They're so pleased. You know, even, like, you know, the woman cutting her face and everything - there's this - it's happening in this, like, drawing room...

CRUCCHIOLA: Yeah.

CHAW: ...Hung with curtains and velvet. It's almost like a, you know, Victorian.

CRUCCHIOLA: Yeah, it's very baroque.

CHAW: Yeah. I think there's stuff here that shows, you know, a wry sense of humor. But again, I get where you're coming from, Glen, totally.

WELDON: I do think it's fascinating - something you both mentioned is that this film isn't particularly gross.

CRUCCHIOLA: Yeah.

WELDON: There's all this organ meat on screen, and I think some of it is that it looks a little fakey-fake (ph). There's some CGI that's a little wonky in there. And I think it comes down to the fact that there's no pain. We are told that there is no pain. And there's also relatively little blood. So if I do watch this film again - I am not watching this film again - but if I do watch this film again, I will definitely be using the subtitles for a few reasons. No. 1, everybody's whispering. No. 2, I am really curious to see how many times over the course of this film the subtitles will just read brackets, squelching noises, close brackets, because it is going to be...

CRUCCHIOLA: Squelching.

WELDON: ...A lot. There is a lot of squelching.

CHAW: Well, you know, I have to say, I kind of treated it like an Altman movie.

WELDON: Yeah.

CHAW: I didn't really care what they were saying. And I think I would have been more irritated if I did, you know, honestly, to try to figure out what the - you know, the undercover cop thing. I have no idea.

WELDON: No idea.

CHAW: I honestly don't know what's happening in any of those scenes. I don't want to know. I'm kind of fascinated by the idea that the National Organ Registry exists.

CRUCCHIOLA: And that it's also two people in a closet.

CHAW: It's two people in a horrible closet, but they're very dedicated to their work, you know, and I think that's interesting. You know, that reminds me of, like, a Wim Wenders movie from the '80s. I kind of at a certain point treated it like - you know, to Jordan's point, like ASMR.

CRUCCHIOLA: Yes.

CHAW: If I could only understand, you know, Viggo and Lea when she's, you know, inserting stuff in her head and face - like, that's kind of all the information I need.

CRUCCHIOLA: It's a movie that's like beautiful wallpaper. Like, if I had a party with weird friends over, I would just, like, put "Crimes Of The Future" on in the background and be like, here's some nice noise to accompany us.

WELDON: Movies as furnishings - I like that.

Well, we want to know what you think about "Crimes Of The Future." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show. Jordan Crucchiola, Walter Chaw, thank you for being here. It helped.

CRUCCHIOLA: Thank you so much for having me.

CHAW: Thanks for having us.

WELDON: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. This episode was produced by Candice Lim and Anna Isaacs and edited by Jessica Reedy. And Hello Come In provides the music you might be bobbing your head to right now.

I'm Glen Weldon, and we'll see you all tomorrow, when we will be talking about "Jurassic World: Dominion."

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