David Cronenberg is back, baby. Okay, he technically never went away for a long period, but he’s returned to the body horror genre that he pioneered in the early 1970s. His latest, Crimes of the Future, is not as shocking as some of his most well-known horror classics like Shivers, Scanners, or even The Fly. However, it is thought-provoking with some new and familiar ideas at its center.
Cronenberg’s latest feature tackles a lot, specifically transhumanism, technology, and this concept of surgery as a new form of sex/performance art. To understand much of what goes on in the film, it’s important to address some of these concepts.
Major spoilers below.
Crimes of the Future’s Transhumanism and Its Chilling Take on Humanity’s Evolution
Set in the not-too-distant future, Crimes of the Future’s first sequence shocks the most. The camera pans in on a boy, Brecken Dotrice (Sozos Sotiris), who digs on a beach. His mother, Djuna (Lihi Kornowski), warns him not to mess around with any waste he digs up. Her warnings make sense later. When she calls Brecken inside, he soon munches on a plastic trash can in the bathroom after brushing his teeth. This scene is both alarming and jarring. Cut to the next scene. When Brecken sleeps, his mom suffocates him with a pillow. So appalled by what her son is, she opts to kill him. To her, he’s an utter monster, a freak of nature. This is made much clearer later. She tries to thwart humanity’s potential evolution before it spreads.
The murder triggers the film’s subsequent events and numerous side plots. Brecken represents humanity’s possible future as literal plastic consumers. Brecken is the first child born who possesses these genes. Other characters in the film, led by Brecken’s father, Lang (Scott Speedman), perform underground surgeries on themselves to speed up this evolution, so to speak. He and the others embrace plastic-eating. They even manufacture plastic candy bars to share with each other. The child is so unique, however, because he’s the first one born with these genes, as far as they know.
Lang and his followers see this evolution as worthy of celebration, a form of transhumanism in which humans evolve to eat their own waste. They devour the industrial waste they create, merging with it, to an extent. To others, specifically government bureaucrats, however, this evolution needs to be stopped, or at the very least, kept from the public. They want to stomp out the truth at all costs.
Government Bureaucracy and Suppression in Crimes of the Future
Crimes of the Future contains a few side stories and subplots. Like film noir, characters double-cross each other. It can be tough to keep track. However, like some of Cronenberg’s early work, government bureaucracy plays a key role. More specifically, there’s a National Organ Registry launched to track everyone’s evolution and organ growth. This is led by Kristen Stewart’s Timlin and Don McKellar’s Wippet. Anyone who grows a new organ must register it by allowing the duo to tattoo it. This is a way for the government to keep track of everything and, more likely, keep an eye out for plastic eaters.
There’s another government official played by Welket Bungue who wants to disrupt and stop Lang’s underground group. So what’s the point of all of this, especially the role Bungue plays? The government wants to suppress information that humans are evolving into plastic munchers. It’s why Lang’s group poses such a threat. They want to spread the news and embrace humanity’s next phase, which sets up another key plot and theme. Why would plastic consumption be a bad thing if it cleans the planet?
Crimes of the Future and a New Form of Sex
Crimes of the Future has another key concept at its core: “surgery as the new sex.” In this dystopian world, humans have become numb. There’s “the old sex,” which people no longer practice. They don’t feel anything anymore, including pain. They even have beds and chairs that adjust their bodies to maximize personal comfort. This is another example of transhumanism, in which this new form of technology melds with humans to aid their comfort. This furniture is nightmarish, with a skeleton-looking structure and tentacle-like arms that leech upon the skin. In this world, humans open themselves up to potentially fatal sensations, even death.
Viggo Mortensen’s Saul Tenser and Lea Seydoux’s Caprice are darlings of the performance art world. They perform surgery on each other before a live audience and in private, a slice here, a slice there using weird gadgets. It becomes orgasmic, and it’s the only thing that gets them off. For the crowd, it’s like a peepshow, especially for Stewart’s otherwise conservative, rigid, and frankly, very unnerving character. In this new world, people stab each other in the leg or watch Saul and Caprice perform surgery. It’s the only titillating experience available when they’re so numb to everything else. It’s the new and disturbing entertainment, “the new sex.”
Saul is like a stage-four cancer patient who speaks in rasps and covers himself from head to toe while in public to avoid illness. Somehow, his body produces new organs, making him an object of fascination for Timlin and Wippet. Caprice, a former trauma surgeon, removes his rogue organs live as part of their art. People film it and look on in heated fixation as if watching a porno.
By the third act, Saul and Caprice are offered a chance to perform their biggest surgery yet. After Djuna murders her son and before she’s jailed, she leaves the body for Lang. Eventually, he offers the body to Caprice and Saul. He wants it cut open before a live crowd to expose the truth. What better way to do this than to turn it into Saul and Caprice’s popular art show? However, when the dynamic duo performs, they don’t exactly discover insides filled with plastic. Timlin covered up the organs, replacing them with tattooed ones, to prevent the truth from reaching the public. She’s a sneaky, sneaky character indeed.
Saul’s Evolution and Crimes of the Future’s Ending Explained
As the film progresses, Saul has more and more difficulty eating, despite his weird chair that adjusts his body to make the process easier. In the final shot, Caprice encourages him to eat one of the plastic bars. She slowly unwraps it and offers it to him. He initially resists but then munches it. Before the credits roll, it’s clear his body has changed to accept plastic. He can no longer digest regular food. Like the murdered boy, he’s another example of this disturbing stage in human evolution.
The film concludes with more than a hint that this will be humanity’s fate. Apparently, the government doesn’t think people can handle the truth, hence why they messed with Brecken’s body, to stop the truth from coming out in a very public way. It’s also why they set up the National Organ Registry, to monitor all new organs and leaps in evolution. Instead of rejecting this next stage, as Saul did previously by cutting out and rejecting new organs, he finally succumbs to it and embraces it.
Of Cronenberg’s broad body of work, Crimes of the Future definitely scores in the better half of his films. He treads some familiar ground here, but it doesn’t’ make the film any less thought-provoking. There are some disturbing images, but more chilling is a future where humans devour plastic and no longer feel anything, to the point they forgo sex because they need a riskier and potentially fatal sensation. Or maybe the film offers a small silver lining, a future where humans evolve to devour their own industrial waste, a positive as Lang sees it.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.