The cyber-punk corner of Sci-Fi is being put into a box. For a sub-genre that purely focuses on the future, it always sees it the same way. The overall aesthetic of neon lights, consistent rain/lack of sunlight, and over-saturated marketplace is forgivable. What isn’t is the forced element of hyper-sexualization of the female body and overall fetish-obsessed culture. Even Bladerunner 2049 — last year’s highly anticipated follow-up to the 1982 cult classic — was faulted for this. If this element were left out, these films would be losing absolutely nothing.
On Friday, Netflix debuted their second attempt to tackle this type of tale with Duncan Jones’ Mute — a two-hour haze of confusion and neon reflected off the rain puddles — and it ends up falling victim to the same issue, among many others.
Set in the seemingly near future in Berlin (where everyone has flying cars, of course), the film focuses on an Amish-raised man named Leo (Alexander Skarsgard) who cannot speak due to an accident when he was a child that caused his vocal cords to be severely damaged. Since his family is Amish, they refuse to allow him surgery, stating that “God will heal him.” That doesn’t happen. With this being the opening scene, a false sense of hope is given that this will continue to be the commentary: the ongoing controversies surrounding faith vs. science. Alas, this is not the case.
As the story continues, we are introduced to Leo’s lover, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). The two are hopelessly in love, but hardly know each other, which becomes the main catalyst to the plot. Naadirah knows the story behind Leo’s disability, but Leo has no idea where Naadirah even lives, let alone much else about her life. So, when she mysteriously disappears shortly after stating that she needed to tell him about “someone” in her life, he is led on a wild goose chase to find her. Entering the fold are American couple Cactus and Duck (Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux, respectively) who served in the military together as medics and eventually started sharing a bunk in addition to canteens and supplies. Their connection to Leo, Naadi and the untold “someone” seems arbitrary at the start but becomes clear in the end.
In Mute, not only is a hyper-sexualized future still the case, but the fetishization of eastern cultures crops up as well. In his pursuit of Naadi’s whereabouts, Leo comes across Oswald, the patron of a “massage parlor” (a fun yet seemingly pointless cameo for Dominic Monaghan), after finding his address when remembering Naadi had copied it into his notepad the night before her disappearance. Oswald answers the door wearing the garb of a Geisha, complete with white face paint and wig. It’s clear that the film is showing us a character who was written to be problematic, but that isn’t always an excuse to use problematic elements.
Where Mute mainly finds its fault, though, is in its expectations that the audience finds Leo and Naadi’s story to be believable. Mute attempts to build a backbone on romance, but it falls short when Leo is on an almost stalker-ish mission to find Naadirah when he really knows nothing about her. His unconditional love in spite of that is supposed to be his pure, shining motivator, but it ends up taking away from the believability of his plight almost right off the bat.
The performances in Mute are its saving grace. Skarsgard is passionately emotive as the voiceless hero, and Paul Rudd is a straight up asshole that you can’t help but love. The relationship dynamics between every character outside of Leo and Naadirah are nice, if even great at times; Cactus and Duck being the most fleshed out of them all. Cactus’ prickliness is countered by Duck’s placid, laid-back nature.
Duncan Jones is no novice when it comes to these types of stories. One of his most notable films, critically acclaimed Moon (2009, starring the affable Sam Rockwell), even has a brilliant Easter egg towards the beginning of Mute. But where Moon created an unforgettably fresh Sci-Fi conundrum, Mute struggles to come close in nuance or engagement.
Sci-Fi creators, those who came before you were pioneers of your genre. With space and technology being the final frontier, we’ve still hardly scratched the surface of stories that can be made in these settings and with these characters. The old tropes that were results of their eras are completely unnecessary in this day and age. There are plenty of other things that can cause a future to be dystopic. A hyper-sexual society riddled with the sexist issues of today does not need to continue to be one of them.
Dir: Duncan Jones
Scr: Michael Robert Johnson, Duncan Jones
Cast: Alexander Skasgard, Seyneb Saleh, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Gilbert Owuor, Robert Sheehan
Prd: Stuart Fenegan, Ted Sarandos
DOP: Gary Shaw
Music: Clint Mansell
Country: UK, Germany
Runtime: 126 mins