Producers: Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner Director: Cory Finley Screenplay: Cory Finley Cast: Asante Blackk, Kylie Rogers, Tiffany Haddish, Josh Hamilton, Michael Gandolfini, Brooklynn MacKinzie, William Jackson Harper, John Newberg, Tony Vogel and Christian Adam Distributor: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Though tonally inconsistent and weighed down by taking on too many satirical targets at once, writer-director Cory Finley adaptation of M.T. Anderson’s 2017 YA novel—his third feature after “Thoroughbreds” and “Bad Education”—is redeemed by a loose, limber style that keeps it from becoming oppressively self-important. If you simply allow yourself to be swept along at its unhurried pace, it’s an oddly engaging if somewhat perplexingly episodic ride into a dystopian future.
The ungainly title stems from the fact that “Landscape With Invisible Hand,” set a decade or so from the present, is structured around paintings by the protagonist, teen Adam Campbell (Asante Blackk), which are frequently inserted, with his museum-ready monikers and descriptions, as transitional devices; the landscape is one of them. Adam lives in a decaying city with his mother Beth (Tiffany Haddish), an unemployed lawyer, and younger sister Natalie (Brooklynn MacKinzie); his father (William Jackson Harper), an architect, has departed for California, hoping to find work there, and whether he’ll ever return to their modest house is uncertain.
Nonetheless the family is better off than many. They at least have a place to stay and are scraping by, which is more than can be said of most in a world that’s been taken over by an extraterrestrial race, the Vuvv, an unemotional species that might be said to embody an extreme form of economic pragmatism. They didn’t so much conquer the planet as merge with its capitalist elite by promising benefits that would make them even wealthier. Then they transported their earthly allies to cities that float in the sky, dropping their detritus onto the surface as they pass, leaving the great mass of the human population on an earth where there are none but the most menial jobs left, shelter and food are scarce and lives are miserable. They’ve also taken over the schools, instructing—or more properly indoctrinating—students, mostly through films on Vuvv history and their empty promises of betterment. Eventually they simply fire human teachers (leading one, played by John Newberg, to protest in a violent fashion), instructing through electronic means instead.
The Vuvv are described at one point as looking like coffee tables when they squat on their four paddle-like appendages to walk. Actually as presented in the VFX form supervised by Erik-Jan De Boer, they resemble large crabs without shells; in cartoons where they depict themselves as jovial and helpful, they look like Hawthorne, the hermit crab mayor in Sherman’s Lagoon. They communicate by scraping their front paddles together—noises that can theoretically be learned as a foreign language by humans but are more often translated by boxy devices.
Before their school is shuttered Adam makes friends with Chloe Marsh (Kylie Rogers), who’s homeless, living with her docile father (Josh Hamilton) and surly older brother Hunter (Michael Gandolfini) in their car. Adam impulsively offers them a place in the basement of their house, an arrangement that almost immediately causes dissention between the families. Chloe offers a suggestion that could help, both domestically and financially: she and Adam can sign up for a program through which Vuvv, who breed asexually and are fascinated by the human process of love, can watch their romance blossom on a pay-per-view basis, via rectangular “nodes” attached to the couple’s foreheads. They quickly become a popular pair.
Unfortunately, their affection soon fades, and they’re summoned to meet Shirley, the imperious Vuvv leader, in her floating city; she charges them with fraud and demands the return of all their earnings. When Beth intervenes, she reaches a compromise with Shirley, whose son wants to experience human domestic relationships by taking up residence in the Campbell home as Beth’s husband. Since his notion of how wives should behave is derived from fifties television programs like Ozzie and Harriet, proud Beth cannot tolerate the arrangement for long, and the Marsh family swoop in to seize their chance to ingratiate themselves with the aliens. Chloe even takes a new pay-per-view romantic partner, Zach (Christian Adam). An unexpected visit by Adam’s father is an additional complication.
But there’s a further twist of fate: the Vuvv become fascinated with Adam’s art—particularly a mural he paints on the boarded-up face of his shuttered school—and offer him scads of money to introduce it to their mile-high communities. But here too their invitation has an ulterior motive.
As is clear from this, Finley’s adaptation—which embellishes Anderson’s original considerably—jumps from target to target: unfettered capitalism, economic exploitation, indoctrination, monetized voyeurism, misreading of human social norms, an authoritarian regime’s perversion of artistic expression for propaganda purposes. And in the process it takes on the conventions of romantic comedy and sitcom cliché, as well as sci-fi tropes. In trying to do so much the treatment is necessarily superficial, and while Finley doesn’t drop any balls in his juggling act, neither does he do any of them full justice.
Still, the film has an agreeably low-key vibe, and keeps you watching despite the flaws. So does the cast, none of whom, with the exception of Gandolfini, push too hard: Blackk and Rogers take their time (Blackk, in fact, can come across as bland), and Haddish, who can ordinarily be expected to overdo, largely keeps that tendency in check. Hamilton is especially amusing as a nebbish who in the end shows a darker side. Meanwhile the Vuvv effects walk a careful line between funny and icky (the voicework is good, too).
The other visuals effects are adequate without being outstanding, and overall the technical package—Sue Chan’s production design, Tanya Caldwell’s costumes, Lynne Mitchell’s sets, Lyle Vincent’s cinematography—gives things a dingy look suitable to the world the film’s creating (even the few visits to the floating city don’t make it look terribly attractive). Michael Abels’ score is barely noticeable, while Louis Ford’s editing conveys the lapidary pace Finley calls for.
Given the heaviness of the topics “Landscape” deals with, its generally amiable manner might seem out of place. But it grows on you even as the movie becomes increasingly episodic and disjointed. The result is a mixed bag, but not an unenjoyable one.