Properly original science fiction invariably has the power to unsettle us in a way unlike any other form of fiction. It means that good sci-fi is not always popular and why the genre has developed its own canon of “cult” films. 2001: A Space Odyssey defiantly challenges audiences to like it but the same is true of Dune, Solaris, The Fifth Element, Robocop, Silent Running, or A Clockwork Orange. This is what distinguishes them from popular science fiction, which tends to ground the science fantasy in something that’s well known. Alien is really just a haunted-house movie. Star Wars is a cowboy movie (interpreted via Japanese samurai movies) set in a galaxy far, far away. Even Blade Runner was initially presented as a thriller, complete with gumshoe and Chandleresque voiceover, and was only given proper recognition once it was later stripped back to the more alienating cut that Ridley Scott had originally intended to release.
Given that popular sci-fi presents familiar tropes dressed a little differently, Duncan Jones’s Mute has understandably been promoted with a faux-ad for Marmite. The filmmakers have long accepted that audiences will either love it or hate it and that has already proved partly right, with a few one-star reviews making headlines of their own. Mute will not please everybody, which is precisely why it might be worth your time…
Mute is the story of Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), a voiceless bartender, who roams across a futuristic Berlin looking for his girlfriend who has inexplicably disappeared. That doesn’t sound much of a story arc but, really, it’s enough on which to hang an intriguing subplot involving Cactus Bill (brilliantly played by Paul Rudd) and Duck (a menacing Justin Theroux). They are a pair of backstreet doctors, one of whom spends his days pulling bullets from gangsters and the other (Duck) is involved in the questionable world of implants, which provides cover for his paedophilia.
It’s this last element which has already drawn considerable criticism. Charles Bramesco at The Guardian argues in his one-star review that “the barrage of inexplicable twists that closes out the film contains one of the more unexpected and staggeringly mishandled depictions of paedophilia in recent memory.” Christopher Hooten at The Independent (also a one-star review) says it is “one of the most curious cinematic treatments on record”. Yet what seems to have offended some isn’t that Duck’s perversion is presented on screen (thankfully, it isn’t) but that Cactus Bill makes a moral compromise once he learns the truth about his friend.
It is an understandable objection but one that ignores where this movie sits. Mute is all about compromises and especially the loss of human values to technology that has become all-consuming. This is Frankenstein retold, or more specifically, the lesser-quoted subtitle to Mary Shelley’s book: The Modern Prometheus. It explains Leo, struggling to communicate in a world of hyper-connected communications, yet providing the moral heart of the movie. Critics have said that it’s a lumbering performance yet if he lumber he does so Monster-like, very much in the tradition of the classic “noble savage”.
Against him, we have the compromised figures. Cactus Bill’s ability to be sickened by Duck’s amorality whilst at the same time remaining his friend is part of the moral murkiness that Jones is admirably exploring. If Mute has a theme, it’s about the complicated nature of the human spirit in a world where flesh has become a commodity. This is perhaps why Mute suffers from the ubiquitous comparisons to Blade Runner when it is spiritually closer to the dense and often off-putting prose of William Gibson’s cyberpunk. (Notably, Gibson has lavishly praised the film via his Twitter account.) In this case, the “punkiness” comes through the attempt to envision our sexualised futures, where the extremes of gender dimorphism meet that place where robots will begin to serve human needs. It is at once both camp and silly, yet it also faces the greatest challenge to all futurists: imagining a world that is both believable but entirely unknown.
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The result is a world in which sex occurs entirely off screen but is represented by simulacra, such as an unsettling scene early on as a “female” robot swings around a pole. It’s both broadly comic, off-putting, but also establishing a reality that remains disturbing. This is especially true when Dominic Monaghan turns up dressed as a geisha, holding a whip, and overseeing a pair of technologically frightening pleasure bots. It plays as comedy but also feels like a small if understandable failure of imagination; a placeholder into which Jones ideally needed a more futuristic, outlandish, yet realistic vision of human lust.
Ultimately, this disjunction between modern norms and those of some future world are what hinder the film and will account for it nascent reputation as a much-loved cult film. Jones is also working for the first time with Netflix, meaning that this film is not available in cinemas but to view at home where screens might suffer from poor calibration. The result feels like many films shot digitally in that the narrative struggles against the clarity offered by the technology. Blade Runner achieved much of its magic through lacuna; blank passages of shadow and slanting rain. It was a trick that Ridley Scott had already learned in Alien (and, indeed, failed to repeat in the most recent Alien movies which also had the problem of simply being too bright).
Mute feels like it needs some of its details muting and pushed into the shadows. It’s a film whose moral darkness needs to match a physical darkness we see on our screens. The digital process feels too clean, producing a result that at times feel artificial. That can be an artifice that helps tell the story yet Mute is ultimately a film about real heart and teaches us that there’s nothing shameful about silence, sex, nor sentiment when so much out there is already brash, loud, and fake.