David Cronenberg's Strange Proposal
'Crimes of the Future,' the director's return to body horror, is an eerily prescient vision of the world.
It's often said about science fiction that, no matter on what planet or in what time period it takes place, the stories told are always extensions of our own present. Nothing is created in a vacuum, and even the most fantastical tales are rooted firmly in the now, with all of our present hopes and fears and anxieties laid bare. The dramatically and cleverly titled Crimes of the Future marks Canadian director David Cronenberg's return to feature filmmaking after almost a decade, and a return to his beloved sci-fi/horror genre for the first time in more than 20 years. The master of onscreen body horror is back, and everyone is, quite rightly, foaming at the mouth in excitement.
The film, which takes its title from one of the director's lesser-known early features, is set in a chillingly near future where human bodies are losing the ability to feel physical pain and, as such, a cottage industry of surgical performance artists are growing their own underground scene. Two such artists, Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and his lover Caprice (Léa Seydoux), find themselves wrapped up in a strange conspiracy involving a shocking murder, a global network, and whispers about the future of human evolution amidst a catastrophically polluted world. It fits meditations on the art world in between depictions of mangled and mutated organs and delightfully fleshy machines, asking what happens if our notions of what makes us human are altered beyond recognition.
As its title suggests, the film is dark, moody, and, yes, plenty gross, but it's less of the gory, slimy freak show you might expect. It's darkly funny, with tender gestures toward all of its odd characters and a view of what our next century might hold that is as heartening as it is sinister. Cronenberg, who in person is quiet, wry, and unassuming—the polar opposite of the person his films might conjure up—spoke with Thrillist about all of these things, as well as his eerie vision of a future made of love and plastic.
Thrillist: I keep thinking about the title of the film. Obviously, you've used it before. Why go back and reuse it now?
David Cronenberg: It's pure theft, really. It's pure theft. The script was initially called Painkillers. And since I wrote the script, there have been like five novels called Painkillers and three streaming series and a movie. And my producer and I thought, you know, it's been kind of devalued as a result. So we need a new title. And my producer Robert Lantos said, "Why don't we just steal your old title Crimes of the Future? Because it does fit." And I thought, why not? I know that fans know that movie, or at least know of it. But most people would not know it. So, why not use it again? It's not meant to be significant in terms of connecting with the old movie, although there are definitely similarities of some kind. But that was a very low-budget underground film that I shot myself and edited myself and was working with friends, not professional actors, and so on.
I just watched it for the first time a few weeks ago.
Did you think there were connections?
Definitely in terms of the setting, people getting weird in a post-catastrophe future.
I think there are some organs in jars though, right?
Yes, that too.
Somebody reminded me of that. I had totally forgotten that. So, even that was there. But I wasn't really thinking of that movie, or using it in a way, really, but I do like the connection—it's kind of comforting.
If you know, you know. As you said, this was something that you had been working on in the past. How does this version of the story compare to what it was?
Well, it's exactly the same in terms of script. I wrote one draft. I never did a second draft. Often in the editing room, that's the second draft. I did cut some scenes, but that's normal—some scenes that ended up being sort of redundant, because you covered it in other scenes. If I had done a serious second draft, maybe I would have cut them, but we never did that. The dialogue never changed. But what changes is the normal stuff, like when you're in actual production and designing the machines, and we were shooting in Athens, which I would never have imagined 20 years ago would be a place that I'd be shooting this movie. So those are the changes that happen, of texture and of detail. But in terms of the characters, they are the same as the original.
And yet there are a lot of analogues in it to what people are anxious about right now.
The story is that my producer phoned me one day and he said, "You really should be making movies again." And I said, "I don't know, I think I'll just write another novel, I think I've had it with the anguish of financing and all that." But he said, "Well, I would like to make a movie with you. And I think you should read this old script of yours." And I said, "Well, I'm sure it's totally irrelevant now, because technology has moved on and society has changed." He said, "No, it's more relevant than ever." And I thought, okay, that's a very good line. I will respect that. And I will read the script. And I read it, and I thought that he was completely right. It's weird, because, then, nobody was talking about microplastics. And now every time you look at a newspaper, or whatever, you are reading about how microplastics are now found in the bloodstream—this is just in the last few weeks—that it's in our flesh. About 80% of the human population, the body seems to be able to handle it, to absorb it somehow, to deal with it without instantly causing cancer or whatever else you might think would have happened immediately. Does that mean that the body is finding a way to use it? Is the body evolving? In other words, yes, it is relevant, strangely. I am not a prophet. I don't think that's the purpose of art. Prophecy is not what art is about. But when certain things collide, and come together, sometimes you accidentally have predicted some things.
Though this movie has plenty of body-horror elements to it, and it's about crimes, and it's horror, by the end it seems kind of hopeful.
It is, it is. There's a kind of transcendence at the end, and a kind of hope. It's not meant to be satirical in the most extreme way. There is a bit of satire in it, but also a kind of weird possibility being presented, a proposal, which is that maybe the solution to the fact that we're kind of destroying the earth—and in terms of plastics, we are—how do we deal with it? Well, the obvious way would be no more production of plastics, and clean the entire oceans of the earth, the bodies of every human being on Earth, of plastic, somehow. How probable is that? Not very, given that we can barely deal with oil and fossil fuels and stuff. How about a strange proposal? Which is the movie's proposal. How about, if bodies actually can evolve to use plastic, to absorb plastic, to use that as nutrient material, could we feed off plastic? After all, there are bacteria, single-celled animals, that can eat plastic and can use it as food. We are made up of single cells, basically, almost like little animals all clustering together. Why not? Maybe humans can do that, too. It's absurd, but also, it's possible. I'm reading about corporations that are employing scientists who are using plastic to create food. There seems to be some positive movement on that score, that some kinds of plastic can be converted into a kind of protein that is usable by the body. Obviously, if that could really happen, then you could solve a lot of the problems of famine, and so, yeah, it's ridiculous, but maybe not totally ridiculous. We live in hope, we need hope. And so, even when it's a little suspect, we go for it.
Even when the thing you're hoping for is maybe a little weird. Semi-related to this, there is this very emotional and tender love story here. You're kind of tricked into thinking, oh, it's this crazy horror movie, but then most of it is just about these two people who are very in love with each other. How do you balance disparate elements like that?
To me, it's not hard, because I think life is like that. People are very conscious of their bodies, more now than ever. You don't have to grow old to start thinking about bodies, and changes to your body and difficulties and liabilities, and all of that kind of stuff. And yet we have a real need for love, and a need for physical love as well. We need to be touched and we need to be held, and all of those things come together. I can't imagine making a movie that doesn't deal at least on some level with that, because it would be a sort of non-human movie, which there are a lot of those out there. Somebody says to me, "Have you seen the latest…?" And I say, "I watched it, and it has no human content." That's my criticism. It's all mechanics and effects and nothing else—there's no humanity. To me, that's the worst criticism you can make about a movie. So, it's a very natural thing to balance all of those things, because, of course, we live for love, let's say, but within the context of technology and politics and techno-pressure, and all kinds of things. It's just natural for me to play with all of those things together.
Speaking of balance, you're often cited, among others, as a big practical-effects guy. Were there digital VFX elements here, and how did you combine the two together?
Everywhere. I know there are some people who like to fetishize actual prosthetic effects. I don't. I use whatever tool works. I'm very pragmatic that way and always have been. The reason that The Fly has no CGI is because there wasn't CGI. But in eXistenZ, there is a creature that's totally CGI. So, I use whatever there is, and VFX is a fantastic tool. It's gotten much more flexible and available and cheap and fast. I love using it, and I use it endlessly, but it's in subtle, small ways that people don't notice. The white fluid dripping from the kid's mouth, that's totally CG, because the kid was not a professional actor. I knew that it would really take hours and hours of time that I didn't have to get him to drool the right way at the right spot. And my effects guys assured me that it could be done in CG, and it was done beautifully. As you can see, you would never know. So, that's a very small example. In other words, I'm not using it for big, major, you know, Spider-Man-is-flying-through-the-air kind of stuff, but for really subtle, small things. You can take things out of a shot that you don't want in a shot—for example, the surgical arms are often puppeteered, and then you take the puppeteering rods out of the shot, that's a common thing. But then we scan those, and then in some of the scenes those surgical arms are 100% CG. So, as I say, I don't fetishize any of it. I'm very pragmatic. It's movie magic.