Producers: Robert Lantos, Panos Paphadzis and Steve Solomos   Director: David Cronenberg   Screenplay: David Cronenberg   Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, Kristen Stewart, Scott Speedman, Welket Bungué, Don McKellar, Yorgos Pirpassopoulos, Tanaya Beatty, Nadia Litz, Lihi Kornowski, Sozos Sotiris and Denise Capezza   Distributor: Neon

Grade: B

This mysterious meditation on mutation is of a piece with themes that writer-director David Cronenberg has been dealing with throughout his career, and in that respect it might be considered a summation of the so-called “body horror” genre of which he’s widely regarded as the father.  But he wrote the piece some two decades ago, and in many ways it seems a companion piece to his 1999 quasi-thriller “eXistenZ.”  However you look at it in the context of Cronenberg’s entire filmography, though, on its own it’s a disturbingly mesmerizing take on human transformation in a disordered world, even if in the end it falls short of his best work.

The film opens with Brecken Dotrice (Sozos Sotiris), a curly-haired boy of ten or so, playing on the seacoast.  His mother Djuna (Lihi Kornowski) shouts at him from the balcony of their hilltop home not to eat anything he discovers as his digs in the sand and rock, but later, after finding him glumly consuming a plastic garbage can, she smothers him to death and phones his father Lang (Scott Speedman) to come and pick up the corpse of what she refers to as “the creature you call your son.”

The focus then shifts to Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), awakening in an undulating bed manufactured by an outfit called LifeForm that, suspended from the ceiling by tentacles, appears to be a comfort-creating combination of biology and technology.  Tenser is a star performance artist whose act derives from an advanced case of Accelerated Evolution Syndrome.  Though he can barely swallow the mush fed to him by a skeletal-looking LifeForm animated chair, and is constantly gagging and coughing, his body regularly produces neo-organs that, in a darkened surgical gallery, his live-in partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux) tattoos and removes as he lies on a gurney that resembles an Egyptian sarcophagus, controlling the bony instruments from a gelatinous mouse.  The spectacle leaves the audience amazed.  In a world in which pain has virtually been banished (and pleasure too, it appears for the gloomy atmosphere), surgery—as a character bluntly puts it—is the new sex.

Tenser has competitors, like a male dancer whose eyes and lips are sewn shut and, with ears all over his body, gyrates before a crowd of sybaritic nightclubbers.  But he is exceptional in this demimonde, which explains the nervous fascination of Wippet (Don McKellar), director of the National Organ Registry, with which Tenser has agreed to share his beautifully-sketched Organography scrapbook, and Wippet’s sheepish assistant Timlin (Kristen Stewart), whose interest in Saul is more than scientific.

Tenser is also involved with a government agency, the New Vice Unit, venturing into the dark streets wearing the black caped hood designed by costumer Mayou Trikerioti to confer with Detective Cope (Welket Bungué) and inform him about what authorities view as criminal activities in a world where mutations and the exploitation of them are springing up.  He is the informant, for example, who reveals an “inner beauty pageant”—meant quite literally—proposed by Dr. Nasatir (Yorgos Pirpassopoulos).

But Saul’s most important revelation concerns Lang, who has approached him with a startling proposition for a new piece of performance art: the public autopsy on the body of his murdered son.  Lang, it seems, is the head of an underground movement using surgical means to make its members capable of digesting plastic, and Brecken was the first person born with the ability, proving it is an inheritable trait.  The autopsy would reveal the change within him to the world.  Lang’s group is also engaged in the mass production of candy bars—plastic coated with chocolate—that prove fatal to those who cannot digest them.

Also involved in the various machinations are sneaky, perky Router (Nadia Litz) and Berst (Tanaya Beatty), who service equipment manufactured by LifeForm, but, as events reveal, have other, far more dangerous, talents.

There’s a lot going on here—the film combines a mordant view of where humanity and the world it inhabits are headed and the escalating merging of flesh and machine with a surprisingly sensitive portrait of individuals trapped in the dystopian environment it creates and a grimly witty (and to some extent self-referential) critique of what audiences want in entertainment.  And it does so in terms that are by turns shocking, darkly funny, gruesome, and oddly touching.  In other words, it’s quintessentially Cronenbergian, a cerebral exercise whose imagery will make many viewers queasy but is unsettling rather than gross.  It’s horrifying in what it suggests about the encroaching future without being a mere horror film; the ambiguous ending confirms that.

The cast and crew are in tune with his idiosyncratic vision.  Mortensen, a regular collaborator, draws Tenser in strokes that reveal complexity under the façade, and McKellar, another veteran of Cronenberg’s films, brings a wry titter to Wippet.  Seydoux matches Mortensen beat for beat, and Cronenberg draws what’s probably a career-best turn from Speedman as the desperate, determined Lang.  Stewart’s performance will probably be divisive.  Some may find it unsubtle, but her job is to convey the maniacal intensity of the groupie, and nails it.

The film was shot under difficult circumstances in Greece, and while the limitations of time and budget sometimes show in the compositions, on the whole it’s an impressive piece of work.  Production designer Carol Spier takes advantage of the desolation of the locales, and of course she and cinematographer Douglas Koch, new to the director’s orbit, linger on the mechanisms and instruments that are essential objects in the design.  Howard Shore’s intense score adds much to the atmosphere, while Christopher Donaldson’s stately editing reinforces the mood.

“Crimes of the Future” may not be the masterpiece of desolation that, for example, “Dead Ringers” was, and there are other Cronenberg films that are also superior to it.  But it’s a potent addition to the work of a visionary filmmaker, a troubling tale that encapsulates the provocative issues that have informed his work for more than half a century.