Battlestar Galatica is a more thought-provoking sci-fi than whatever this mess is
Remember that one episode of Doctor Who where James Cordon got trapped in a Cyberman suit and, just when the Doctor had lost all hope of saving him, James Cordon defied the odds and escaped with nothing but the power of love for his baby son? Well, Duncan Jones’ Mute is a little like that in absolutely no way apart from its final moments where, spurred on by a newfound love and concern for a small child standing precariously on the edge of a bridge, its central character, Leo– who is, as the title may have led you to believe, mute – miraculously finds the capacity to shout at the child to step back to safety. “He doesn’t need words,” one character says of Leo, “he’s…kind.” But, nonetheless, Mute seems to think kindness isn’t an attribute significant enough as the ability to speak and the conclusion sees immediately to it that he is to be ‘fixed.’ It’s 2018 and we’re still borderline ableist – swell job, guys.
The ending is, at least, fitting enough to conclude what was already a rather peculiar two hours. The Source Code and Moon director drops the sharp wit and the thrills of time and space travel for a Blade Runner infused backdrop and a sleazy criminal underworld where animatronic sex robots are a commonality, all held together by the wiry ends of Paul Rudd’s handlebar moustache. Now, Paul Rudd’s a great actor, don’t get me wrong – the man’s been nothing if not professional. But shove this hunk of a moustache on someone with the voice of anyone but Michael Shannon and you’ve got yourself a character (otherwise known as Cactus Bill) so ludicrously questionable you’ll be googling how much Rudd got paid for this faster than he can introduce himself as “No Bill, just Crap Bag. First name Crap. Last name Bag.”
The film itself, a slick sci-fi set in the nefarious underbelly of future Berlin, unfortunately falls trap to the curse of Netflix original science fiction. In the last three months the streaming service has released three sci-fi blockbusters – the Will Smith helmed Bright, The Cloverfield Paradox, and now Mute – all of which have been met with less enthusiasm than their towering budgets might have accounted for. Mute luckily doesn’t reach the new lows set by last month’s disastrous Cloverfield continuation and doesn’t have any franchised namesake to uphold (the ending leaves the world open for a Mute 2 somewhere down the line, but I doubt we’ll be seeing much more of Alexander Skarsgård’s brooding scowl unless Tarzan 2: The CGI is better this time we promise is given the green light), but there’s no getting away from the fact that Mute is nothing but a disarray of bland sci-fi hyperbole and promising insight that misses the mark so much that Transformers: Last Knight has a better chance of edging closer.
There’s a bitter sense of hypocrisy about films that attempt to use female bodies as a point of sexual violence, especially when they don’t really know what they’re doing. Mute’s ignorance borders on tragic. Leo’s girlfriend, Naadirah, is the definition of the manic pixie dream girl we all thought we’d agreed to leave behind five years ago. She’s mysterious, she’s got blue hair (“I wondered if the top matches the bottom” is a line that literally comes out of Noel Clarke’s mouth. Also, why is Noel Clarke in this film is a valid question that deserves an answer I cannot give you), she’s a stripper who’s only doing it for the goddamn money because the world has no other legitimate job for women apart from being the half-clothed figure in a man’s recurring wet dream. The camera laps up the women in front of it just as its perverse, ogling and often abusive men do. Then again, it throws the men it imitates under the bus and paints them as villains and beasts. Which they are, of course. But there is something nauseating about a film that demonises those that exploit women’s bodies for sexual pleasure whilst doing it, without consequence, all the same. There is nothing clever or ironic about it: there is no likening the camera as filmic tool and the viewer as consumer to being the same as the sexual predators on screen. There is no implicating them as the violent consumers the characters themselves are, as much as it thinks it’s doing. It separates intention from action, scopophillia from violence, when, in fact, they are one and the same.
I might be picking up on relatively silly things. After all, this is in the same film where Justin Theroux is a paedophile who runs a cybernetic children’s surgery where he gives animatronic limbs to kids missing their own whilst filming them naked on hidden cameras. That’s quite an intense plot twist, to put it mildly. But instead of questioning it, instead of critiquing it in any way, it’s just thrown randomly in to check a box next to shock value, like a frame of pornography spliced into a children’s cartoon.
Still, the comparison to Oscar favourite The Shape of Water isn’t implausible. After all, 2017 seemed to be the year of cinematic inclusiveness and its continuation into 2018 has manifested itself partly with the welcome addition of medically mute characters, a disability films have long since ignored. Both Guillermo del Toro’s sweeping tale of forbidden love and Jones’ noir-esque crime ‘thriller’ (I use the word tentatively) rest a thematic focus on water as well, though the latter has no discernible idea why and doesn’t pretend to. I get the feeling that the film never really found its voice: we can watch painfully as it struggles to explain the various twists and turns it’s throwing our way, and, on regular intervals, saturates with sleazy violence and gore, but there’s no real reason for any of it to be here. The film is a hollow crust of poorly paced exposition that makes its epic Blade Runner type cityscape look kind of, well – sad. To be completely honest, if I hadn’t accidentally saw the plot twist involving Paul Rudd on Wikipedia before it happened, I doubt I would have got it at all and you’d have probably just read a much worse review.
Mute, directed by Duncan Jones, is available to stream via Netflix now.