Director: David Cronenberg
Rating: 5.5 / 10
Over the past couple of weeks I've suffered a rare illness that has damaged my throat and removed my ability to speak. Often mistaken as a simple virus or bacterial infection, the malady actually results from the atrophy of the Broca's region of the frontal cortex. The now inert neural matter of that region becomes available as auxillary support to other regions of the brain, and may adopt a new function as required by the afflicted. In my case the disease was triggered by the stress accompanying my own scientific endeavors, and has been employed to provide additional short-term memory and analytical ability. Side effects have included fatigue, bronchial irritation, and the resurfacing of long-buried memories in the form of dreams.
Okay, only a small fraction of that is rooted in truth, but that's likely the sort of diagnosis I'd receive from the doctor at the center of Crimes of the Future, David Cronenberg's bizarre second film. Ronald Mlodzik (a staple of early Cronenberg) adopts the role of Dr. Adrian Tripod. Tripod narrates his search for the errant madman Dr. Antoine Rouge after forced out of the dermatology clinic where he and Rouge pushed the boundaries of modern medicine. Through his work at the clinic, known as the House of Skin, Rouge inadvertently killed most of the world's women with a plague resulting from an experimental dermatological treatment gone horribly wrong. The disease leaves men unharmed but not unchanged, and causes a white discharge to emerge from the ears or nipples. When in one of the opening scenes of the film Tripod milks a colleague and eats the white foam, it's clear that this future's medicine has become less focused on healing and more on the transformation of the patient.
Crimes of the Future has much in common with Cronenberg's first effort, Stereo - a meandering story, a narrator who takes center stage with a jargon-laced monologue, an eerily cold portrayal of the future as one populated by effete men wandering sparse landscapes. The University of Toronto campus has again been reconfigured by Cronenberg's camera into a stark series of futuristic locales filled with looming concrete buildings and deserted plazas. It also shares the languid pace that dragged down Stereo, here with the silence supplanted by a grating soundtrack of electronic noise.
The ideas here are somewhat more developed, and having the story presented by a narrator who's also a character in the film gives it an impact that the clinical voiceover in Stereo lacked. Cronenberg's take on relatively mundane fields of medicine are a highlight. Here something as seemingly unremarkable as podiatry is transformed into a manifestation of evolutionary regression wherein people forget how to walk as their minds devolve into those of primitive oceanic creatures. The idea of medicine that's been perverted and warped would resurface later in Cronenberg's career, primarily in the gynecology for "mutant women" featured in Dead Ringers. While in that film the ideas were integrated into the story along with fascinating characters, in Crimes of the Future there isn't much else. The latent homoeroticism of Dead Ringers is also present, although more front and center here since it's almost mandated by the plot. I still can't quite surmise Cronenberg's aim with it though, other than to explore the evolution of sexuality as well as that of the physical form.
Visually (as in Stereo) the film is remarkable, especially given how little Cronenberg had to work with. Here he also learns to be slightly less in love with his creativity. Fewer shots linger simply for the sake of lingering. It's a more engaging film, but one that's dragged down by the sheer number of ideas it presents. It jumps from scenario to scenario as Tripod switches careers, never bothering to really follow through with any particular element of the story.
I've always been impressed at how Cronenberg can elevate seemingly low-brow genre stories above the mediocre simply by virtue of his ideas. Years later in Shivers, he'd combine psychosexual themes with the momentum of a B-horror flick - a formula that launched the main phase of his career. Much like Stereo, Crimes is interesting for anyone who wishes to see Cronenberg wrestling with ideas he'd revisit later in his career. As a standalone film it leaves a bit to be desired.