★★★☆☆ David Cronenberg first made Crimes of the Future in 1972. It was a disturbing account of a plague that killed all sexually mature women. It was transgressive, low-budget, and shocking. Now, with a reputation built over half-a-century of work, Cronenberg has returned to the scene of his Crimes... with an A-list ensemble in tow.

★★★☆☆

David Cronenberg first made Crimes of the Future in 1972. It was a disturbing account of a plague that killed all sexually mature women. It was transgressive, low-budget, and shocking. Now, with a reputation built over half-a-century of work, Cronenberg has returned to the scene of his Crimes… with an A-list ensemble in tow, although one still concerned with many of the same issues as its forebear.

The film opens on a capsized cruise ship and a child playing in the flotsam of the shore. It’s a Ballardian beach scene with the child’s mother reacting when she finds her son eating a plastic bin. The sense of mystery and dread is collapsed effectively when we move to ‘Exposition-ville’, where the rest of the film will take place. There’s a crumbling seaside town, its shoreline complete with wrecks, redolent of Cuba coming to pieces. There’s a non-specific, Burroughs-like Interzone where we learn that the human body has changed. Pain is relatively rare and bio-technology now turns us over in our sleep because we don’t feel the discomfort.

Surgery has become a form of entertainment, with performance artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Léa Seydoux) two of its cutting-edge proponents. Saul grows new organs in his body, while Caprice tattoos then removes them. The surgical theatre is once more the theatre where operations are performed. Much of Crimes of the Future is explained to people who live in the universe of the film, with even simple things like character’s names endlessly iterated and reiterated.

The government exists in the kind of derelict offices where you can constantly hear the tapping of unseen footsteps down empty corridors. A ‘New Organ Registry’ is being set up by Jordan Petersen lookalike Wippet (Don McKellar) and breathy bureaucrat Timlin (Kristen Stewart), always one incision away from orgasm. (“Surgery is the new sex,” she gasps.) There are a lot of plot points but, like Thomas Pynchon’s work, only a stuttering pastiche of narrative. There’s a policeman running the New Vice Unit (Welles Bungue), for whom Saul works as a snitch, and a pair of repair/hit-women who have a Bambi and Thumper feel from Diamonds Are Forever.

None of these plot strands seem to go anywhere. Rather, they serve as clotheslines on which to bed some fascinating ideas, spouted with darkly humorous conviction by the film’s ensemble cast. There’s no subtext here, and Cronenberg delights in hitting many of the old favourites from his back catalogue: long live the new flesh (Videodrome); secretive cults (Scanners); weird children (The Brood); flesh ports (eXistenZ). But the world has seemingly caught up with Cronenberg. How do you transgress a society in which transgression has gone mainstream?

The fact that Cronenberg’s films attract A-listers like Mortensen, Seydoux and Stewart tells us something. There are scenes of scalpels and gore, but the body horror is nothing to compare with fils Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor or last year’s Palme d’Or winner Titane. There were certainly no disgusted walkouts in my screening (although there were quite a few nodding off).

Having said all that, Crimes of the Future still has its strengths. Howard Shore’s score lends a tragic, almost stately emotional counterpoint to the steel of the wit. Mortensen and particularly Stewart obviously adore muttering lines about a world “Juicy with meaning”. And who wouldn’t? Is it too much to wish it was just little juicer and a little less meaningful?

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John Bleasdale | @drjonty