If there was one name that got me excited almost a decade ago for science fiction, it was Duncan Jones. He exploded on the scene, at a moment notice, not really giving any sort of warning, and he changed a genre that really hadn’t been treated with respect in a long time. The first time I had heard the name was for a 2009 film called “Moon.” It had many parallels to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But, Jones clearly took some similarities and made a movie which entirely belongs to him. There were moments I never saw coming and that’s always exciting. In 2011, he made “Source Code,” again he put a stellar cast together. Again, he was dabbling in science fiction. Again, it felt like he was borrowing from other movies, but he made it his own and featured some story beats that I didn’t see coming. Yes, he directed the corporate fodder “WarCraft” but even the best of the business has dark spots in their careers and sometimes you can’t totally trust somebody who has never failed.
Over the weekend, Netflix released Duncan Jones’ new film “Mute.” Again, Duncan Jones has brought together a great cast including Alexander Skarsgard, Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux. Much like his previous films, you can see other parallels to other films. There has already been many comparisons to “Blade Runner 2049.” But I am not sure I quite understand that one. Sure, both films take place in the future. Sure, both films are incredibly gorgeous to look at, but honestly, that’s where the similarities stop. I guess Ryan Gosling and Alexander Skarsgard’s characters are similar; silent, somber, brooding heroes. Skarsgard plays Leo. As a child, his throat was damaged in a freak accident, taking away his ability to speak. He’s grown up not ever uttering a word, but he’s still found love in Naadirah, played by Seyneb Saleh. They both work at a club together, and they are both very much in love. After one night, she’s being heckled by some assholes, and its Leo who steps in and stops them. Then the next day, she’s gone. Without a trace and Leo doesn’t even know where to look.
For a huge portion of the movie, there seems to be an entirely separate story going on involving Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux). They are partners, best friends, maybe lovers. (I could never figure out if they were romantically involved, experimenting with their sexuality, or just weird friends. The movie does very little to explain this). They work as surgeons who work on people for the local mob. Cactus Bill is saving money to get from Berlin (where the film takes place) to the United States, and he needs his boss to forge documents for him and his daughter (further confusing the matter of Duck and Bill’s relationship).
Cactus Bill is connected to a man that attacked Naadirah in the opening moments of the film, and eventually Leo and Cactus Bill will run into each other. But honestly, I can’t go any further. I am never one to get into the way of spoilers. Of course there are some big reveals, this is a Duncan Jones movie. There are going to be big reveals. I am just not sure if those reveals were enough to save the movie from some of its pitfalls.
First of all, again, the film is gorgeous. This is a breath-taking look at the future. There are futuristic buildings, vehicles and technology has taken over most aspects of life, you have to be careful walking into a strip club, because the dancers may or may not be human beings. There are some things that are clever. There are things that made me laugh. Heck, I may watch the movie again just to soak up every detail that Jones packs into the film. Perhaps that is why there are so many comparisons to “Blade Runner,” there are designs that feel connected to that world.
People unable to speak seem like hard characters to play. I think Alexander Skarsgard deserves some massive credit for bringing together a character that comes to life with facial expressions and body language. He is a fully realized character here, and he feels real. Never does he feel like he’s overacting. Never does he feel artificial. It’s a wonderful performance. I would also say that Justin Theroux does some very good work in this movie too. I think he’s gone pretty underappreciated his entire career and this is just another precious performance by the guy. I like Paul Rudd, but he’s mostly a funny guy. There are some funny moments here that he nails, but Cactus Bill is mostly a serious role. It’s become clear that Rudd is not a jack-of-all-trades and there are some moments that do fall flat.
The thing is, it seems like Duncan Jones gave himself too much, he bit off more than he could chew here. I like the idea of a mute man going on a roaring rampage of revenge. But that’s not quite what happens here. The two stories between Leo and Cactus Bill are so different that they feel like they belong in different movies. They stay separate, despite a few faint whispers, for most of the running time. When the big reveal is brought to life, it nearly feels like a cop-out. Nearly. I think there is just enough development and exposition for it to land, I just don’t think it was nurtured to the point that would make the audience jaw drop. What’s also a little crazy is how the movie limps on for another fifteen minutes after the big finish. There is a moment that is ripe for a good ending, but the movie moves forward when it really doesn’t need to.
If you saw “Moon” in 2009, then you’ll notice Sam Rockwell in various moments in the film. In fact, you may catch more than one of him in one scene. If you know “Moon,” you know what that means. Even though this is billed as a “spiritual sequel” to “Moon” I am not sure I’d call it that. This is a completely different movie with a moneyshot included. The Sam Rockwell cameo doesn’t connect or move the film in any significant way. It’s just kind of there, and while I am sure “Moon” fans get a kick out of it, it’s really not needed. But alas, everybody is getting into the shared universe business. I knew it would happen. Why would Duncan Jones be any different?
Netflix has made it clear that they are trying to do more as a media platform then just buy independent films from festivals and give them wider releases. They are really trying to be a huge player each cinematic calendar year. “Bright,” “The Cloverfield Paradox” and now “Mute” have proven that they are very much trying to play the mainstream blockbuster game. So far, they’ve been mediocre at best, terrible at worst. For Netflix, its all about how many people click on a new release and watch it which they base their success on. It doesn’t matter if the audience openly likes the movie or not. “Bright” isn’t getting a sequel because it was popular with people, its getting a sequel because Netflix read their data and found out lots of people watched it. Netflix is running a risk of being a platform where studios will dump their junk on, and that’s not exactly what I hoped for within the company. I hope they base their decisions on a balance of creativity and monetary gain. “Mute” has its moments, its just a huge mess of a movie throughout much of its running time. I don’t want just pretty messes, I want movies that will make an impact on me. They can do better.
FINAL GRADE: C