Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
February 2018


Retrograde futurism

On these same old streets and these same old futures, and Mute's inability to find anything to say

Director: Duncan Jones
Screenplay: Michael Robert Johnson and Duncan Jones
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Seyneb Saleh, Robert Sheehan, Gilbert Owuor, Mia-Sophie Bastin, Lea-Marie Bastin and Noel Clarke
Not rated / 2 hours, 6 minutes / 2:1
February 23, 2018
(out of four)

We're done with this now, right? This Blade Runner thing. This noir of neon, this future of oppressive fluorescent shadows. This dystopian default setting that everyone's been stuck on for the last 35 years. We're going to move on, yes?

I'm not saying Duncan Jones' Mute will have enough cultural currency to be the proverbial last straw, but it's a prime example of the redundancy, and creeping meaninglessness, of a particular approach to science fiction. We've been through the glowing haze of these same streets too many times before. It's not that they're all replicants replicas of Blade Runner's Los Angeles, but of the same, increasingly incestuous lineage. That modern cities often look comparable to this aesthetic already should be propelling us in new directions, but instead we just keep on agreeing that yes, this is what Cities of the Future look like. That we're mere months away from the year in which Blade Runner was meant to be taking place should be something of a signal, right? Telling us that we should be imagining things far different, bolder, more unexpected for our theoretical metropolitan futures. (Also: the rampant influence of Ridley Scott's film could easily make one forget just how understated its use of those flashy nightline trademarks really was.)

One of the best examples of a film taking these particular impulses and tendencies to an idiosyncratic extreme is Steven Spielberg's A.I. The city streets we get in its early sections are a marvelous and deceptively spare rendition - old-fashioned 20th Century alleyways given a neon upgrade, punctuated by interior bursts of woozy, high-contrast color saturation that would make Wong Kar-wai proud. Then later on, we get the dazzlingly decadent fantasia of the red-light district, Rouge City - an explosive visual hallucination peppered with towering neon promises of dreams and adventures and fairy tales and sex. Like if the future version of Las Vegas were designed by someone with more artistry and a weirder, sleazier imagination.

I mention A.I. only because it's an example of an inspired vision of the future that fits the profile I'm referring to but is deployed so specifically, and so impeccably, that it's never anything but its own habitat. Not to mention, that movie came out 17 years ago. Mute is set 17 years from now, in cyberpunk Berlin circa 2035. And there it is, front and center: that congested carnival of light setting the otherwise dark city aglow. Oh. This again. Doesn't it feel like we've been in this nightclub before? It has all the things that so many futuristic movies use solely to demonstrate that they take place in the future: the elaborate variety of bright, distinctive, synthetic hair colors; the fetish gear and body modification and radical body art; the neo-retro fashions and interior design; the gender-fluid set dressing; the Japanese neon signage. Oh, and of course the robots. Always the robots. Stripper robots, in this case.

To be clear: I actually like the production design of Mute. In a vacuum, anyway. The more you look, the more eccentricities you see in it. But just because it's a strong piece of work in and of itself doesn't mean it's an effective piece of work within the movie. Here, the very existence of that production design is a glaring affectation, serving a film that has virtually no reason to even be science fiction - no good reason to take place in a future of any kind. Imagine a movie with no musical score suddenly having a big, bold score added to its soundtrack. The score might be brilliant - might be Nino Rota or Ennio Morricone or Bernard Herrmann; might be one of history's great symphonies; might be The White Album - but regardless, it wouldn't really belong on top of a Dardenne Brothers or Mingui film, or Dog Day Afternoon, or The Day of the Jackal. At best, it's superfluous and meaningless. At worst, it's ruinously disruptive.

The cyberpunk world of Mute, however well realized it may be, is a cheap façade. The narrative of Mute does not require this future. The ideas of Mute do not require this future. Even its 2035 technology is extraneous, used regularly as one plot mechanism or another but not in any way that really requires, or makes interesting use out of, the technology itself. Someone finds a clue on a refrigerator at one point - it's a future refrigerator with a computerized display ... but, it's still just a refrigerator with a clue on it. Someone looks through their front-door peephole at a man knocking on the door - it's a future peephole with a camera and a sound effect and everything ... but it's still just used as a front-door peephole, same as any other.

It's disingenuous, and maybe a little insulting, to see a movie co-opt the surface characteristics of not only a broad genre label but a very specific subset within that genre. Appearances can be deceiving, and Jones is counting on us not sniffing out the deception. Mute unambiguously identifies itself as a very recognizable type of movie and counts on that superficial veneer to do the work the filmmaking and the writing cannot. Mute is a sci-fi theme park, and the actors are just poking their heads through holes in a cardboard standee. "Look at me, Ma, I'm a futureman."

The only justification I can think of for the setting is to forge a more pronounced separation - alienation - between our protagonist, a mute bartender named Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), and his surroundings. His time and place. Leo is Amish, you see. Rejects technology as much as he possibly can, lives and behaves by a different code than everyone in his vicinity. Why such a person would wind up working in a strip club in the most electronically cacophonous city imaginable is anyone's guess - perhaps there's a throwaway explanation contained in the dialogue somewhere, but if so I missed or forgot it - but then again, even asking that question presupposes that Leo's religious identity or lifestyle really matters to the film.

And there's the rub. It, too, is an affectation. There is no exploration into Leo's Amishness - philosophically, religiously, socioculturally - as a component of his character. There is no basis for, or application of, his belief system or way of life beyond the simple fact that he lives in an apartment without screens all over the place. He is Amish, or at least comes from an Amish background, because the film says so. Otherwise it has nothing much to say on the matter. This compounds the fact that Leo's storyline is by far the least interesting thing about the movie, and the most poorly developed. The story is: His lady has gone missing. The love of his lonely alienated life, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), the blue-haired waitress at the club where Leo works the bar. One night they're in bed together and she's on the verge of telling him a deeply personal secret, the next morning she's gone without a trace. He resolves to find her.

A perfectly fine setup. But whether it's because the search itself never finds any compelling direction, or that the Leo character is just too much of a cipher to ever drum up any interest, the primary thrust of Mute feels almost dormant. Maybe that's the reason why we spend so much time with the black-market medical duo of Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and his military pal Duck (Justin Theroux). These two are involved in the underworld that Leo has to cross paths with throughout his hunt - drugs, prostitution, the usual, all running through that same nightclub and its owner, Maksim (Gilbert Owuor), in one direction or another. But the scenes between Bill and Duck play out as slice-of-life. We hang out with these guys, get to know their habits, their depraved sexual appetites, their hobbies (bowling!), their businesses and side businesses (for Duck, it's building cybernetic implants and limbs on the side), their immediate goals (in Bill's case, it's getting forged emigration papers so he and his daughter can move out of Berlin). We get a feel for their view of the world a lot more than we do for the film's presumptive philosophical center. Judging the screen time of the two primary sides to the story - Leo on one, Bill and Duck on the other - it's almost as if the movie subconsciously realizes the two rogue side characters are more interesting than the hero, so he was trimmed down to make more room for the scenes in which Jones' storytelling is more confident.

Problem is, there's no bigger picture with Bill and Duck. Rudd's performance is the film's highlight - both Rudd's persona and the way this character wears it get more intriguing and purposeful the more we follow him around - but it also has no business being the de-facto co-lead. At least not the way the screenplay is structured. Essentially Mute is an ensemble piece that wasn't quite written as one. The Bill/Duck storyline exists for the primary purpose of eventually intersecting, somewhere in this criminal underworld, with Leo's investigation. At which time the relationship between the two stories collapses in slow motion even as Jones tries to nonsensically keep it going. (The final 20 minutes are an absolute shitshow.)

When you think about Leo as a character in relationship to his technologically dependent environment, it's easy to wonder what such a dichotomy could potentially mean, or reveal about, a character, this character, or the society he's been born into. There's something to that, somewhere - philosophically or otherwise. But Jones, despite sincere intentions, never finds it. Leo and Catcus Bill and Mute itself all have destinations perpetually in mind, but in the end they're all dressed up in futuristic duds with nowhere to go.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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