If one were to relax one’s eyes and stand very far away, the career of Duncan Jones might begin to resemble that of the young Hollywood savior he’s clearly angling to be. Like George Lucas before him, Jones made a name for himself with a blazingly original sci-fi sleeper (2009’s excellent Moon) which he then parlayed into a workmanlike box-office success (2011’s high-concept Source Code). But sometime in the five-year hiatus prior to 2016’s Warcraft, a difficult period marked by his wife’s battle with cancer and his father’s death, he strayed from the path. His adaptation of the popular online fantasy game was to be Jones’ graduation into the uppermost echelon of big-league film-making, but it was savaged by critics and ate dirt at the US box office.
All of which has led to Mute, a spectacularly blown shot at redemption. In the parallel universe where everything’s gone right for Jones, this long-labored-over passion project would have been his magnum opus, an idiosyncratically imagined futuro-fantasia worthy of the Blade Runner comparisons it so shamelessly courts. But while Jones has never been lacking in ambition, here that quality seems more like a willingness to “go for it”. The depth of his creative commitment hasn’t turned shallow, but it has been applied to a collection of perilously bad impulses.
Foremost among them is Leo Beller, your run-of-the-mill Amish bartender at Berlin’s premier robot strip club circa 2058. Portrayed with a carefully measured mix of glowering, breathing, blinking, and standing by Alexander Skarsgård , Leo has been rendered unable to speak by one of those throat-slashing Amish motorboating accidents that are always in the news. His pat quest to locate a missing girlfriend, in conjunction with Leo’s thin characterization and a minimal range of expression from Skarsgård , leads to one surpassingly boring performance. As he trudges through the warpath already well-trod by Taken and its numerous offspring, Skarsgård simply occupies space onscreen. If acting is music, he is noise, a series of vaguely related sounds.
Leo graciously cedes approximately half of the narrative attention to a pair of American surgeons, who have the decency to spruce Jones’ stultifying dialogue up with a bit of their own flavor. Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux appear to be doing everything in their estimable powers to have a bit of fun from under their ridiculous hairpieces (a robust full-face moustache and young Steve Jobs wig, respectively). The two are playfully homoerotic pals and partners-in-crime – literally, they sew gangsters up on the down-low for easy money – who have something to do with the mystery of Leo’s missing paramour, and that’s not discretion for the sake of the spoiler-averse. Their relation to the wider mechanisms of plot are not clear. Not merely tonally incoherent, the film’s denouement utterly defies comprehension; the barrage of inexplicable twists that closes out the film contains one of the more unexpected and staggeringly mishandled depictions of pedophilia in recent memory.
But after horror, sci-fi is the genre in which the portal to that rarefied realm of transcendent awfulness opens widest. When it becomes apparent that Mute will not be a great achievement in the usual sense, which happens after five minutes or so, the hope becomes that it will end up one of those intimately personal messes that driven auteurs sometimes vomit out. In dribs and drabs during Theroux and Rudd’s strand of story, Jones skims the heights of lunacy that make The Fifth Element and Jupiter Ascending fascinating in their flaws. But these windows close all too quickly, and the expanses of deadening stasis between them are too wide.
If Mute were a better film, it would provide a shining example of the Netflix machine functioning exactly as designed: write creators with vision a check, let them do their thing, and trust that the lack of oversight will translate to a product with integrity. Jones has spent 15 years trying to get this production off the ground, no small feat in an industry that has all but abandoned mid-budget genre pictures, and Netflix should come off looking like a guardian angel to visionaries frustrated by the studio system.
The problem is that Jones couldn’t hold up his end of the bargain and deliver work that rates even as “interesting”, the last salvation of flagrantly terrible movies. (How his post-digital Berlin could simultaneously look so expensive and so cheap may be a Zen riddle.) Instead, most disappointingly of all, the volleys of overindulgent inertia mount a convincing argument against the very class of release in sadly short supply at present. Watching Jones passively bob in the deep end of his imagination, a viewer longs for the compulsory baseline competence of the big studios – anything but the blandness masquerading as future cult bait.
- Mute is now available to stream on Netflix