A great deal of credit for such reliance on effects works gets attributed back to George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), and why not? Catapulting audiences to a galaxy far, far away had rarely looked so keen and inviting as it did in that landmark space saga. Naturally, the flick inspired others to follow in those footsteps, and – only a handful of years later – viewers had been supplied with the people, places, and things only previously possible in the pages of a comic book or graphic novel. In fact, it really wasn’t all that long before effects work started showing up in more conventional fare where the change of a city landscape or the catastrophic wreck of automobiles or the power of a Category 5 tornado was needed to ‘sell the sizzle’ of a dramatic sequence. Audiences appreciate a spectacle, so why not push the envelope as far as was technologically possible?
However, there have been some who have warned that this increase of augmenting images in post-production might inevitably cheapen stories to the point wherein it was no longer required to render human stories on film when they could be – as it’s often said – “fixed in post” (meaning post-production). Simply put, there’s no amount of visual trickery that can elevate an otherwise authentically dull story, but that’s never stopped Hollywood and others from trying. To a degree, that’s what I sensed with 2018’s Mute, a futuristic neo-noir from writer/director Duncan Jones that never quite makes sense the way I suspect those behind-the-scenes thought it could, would, or should. There’s a curious reliance on effects that, quite frankly, didn’t need to be there as the breadth of its ‘land of tomorrow’ aspect winds up being more confusing than supportive.
In its place remains a human undercurrent that feels as manufactured as do many of its visuals, thus cheapening the experience that should’ve been vastly superior than the sum of its parts.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“A mute bartender goes up against his city’s gangsters in an effort to find out what happened to his missing partner.”
Director Jones literally packed Mute to the gills with far too many ideas for viewers to make the level of sense required with a single viewing. There’s an overabundance to every aspect of this – all of it made more curious by the obvious fact that our lead character is Amish – and a bit of streamlining might’ve served everyone involved to a good degree. I’ve read that this was a long-gestating story he was thrilled to finally bring to life, but there are pieces of it that just make so little sense. Besides operating on a shorthand as to when and where this particular future is, the film jumbles its politics in ways that don’t quite make for smooth sailing. At times, it’s decidedly anti-American without clearly spelling out what the big beef is with the United States, and I can’t help but wonder if it needed a few more years ‘gestating’ in order for the perfect incarnation of this plot to rise in the cinematic oven.
As a young boy, Leo (played by Alexander Skarsgård) was involved in a gruesome boating accident that robbed him of his ability to speak. While this disadvantage might’ve sidelined others into a life of misery, Leo grew up and, eventually, left the farm in favor of life in the big city (though we’ve never told why). He exists still clinging to his humble ways – a simple apartment, simple inelegant clothes, an almost miserly existence – and has found employment in a posh nightclub as a bartender. He’s even found love in the arms of Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), but it’s her sudden disappearance that throws him into disarray. He’ll stop at nothing to find what happened to her, even at the risk of his own safety when crossing paths with some of the big city’s unsavory types becomes necessary to get to the bottom of it all.
With neo-noirs, it’s also safe to suggest that audiences have quite possibly seen this story before.
The disappearance of one’s loved ones has fueled a great many films, so this construct truly needed something extra to deliver the necessary freshness. Sadly, this is where Jones hugely misses the mark, perhaps hoping to simply distract his audience with a world that occasionally seems similar to, say, 1982’s Blade Runner, 1988’s Akira, or 2002’s Minority Report. While those environments were tied thematically to their respective subject matter, Mute lacks such direct association to the land of tomorrow, instead using it as a backdrop for what central story could honestly have been told today or even a few decades ago. Having little to no intrinsic need for this to be futuristic – except for the purposes of utilizing the gadgetry – hollows out the thematic core much in the same way having a character robbed of speech kinda/sorta guts that person, requiring them to find alternative methods to communicating their needs, wants, and desires. As much care that went into crafted Skarsgård’s performance was needed with everything else in here … and that just never happens.
As your villain?
Look: I’m not one to pick on poor casting decisions. Not every Thespian is up to every challenge of every role ever caught on film. In fact, I’ve often argued that hiring comedians and/or comic actors in dramatic roles is a bit of inspired genius here and there because it gives the talent and the audiences an opportunity to see and experience moments from a vastly different perspective. However, Rudd – as the curiously named Cactus Bill – never quite fills the shoes of this bad-ass character here – an AWOL American soldier who’ll stop at nothing to get back home (again, why?, cause America’s so bad, I thought) – and his work here feels … erm … wildly uncentered and formulaic. He cares deeply for his daughter but not so much to keep her away from the city’s underbelly. Why not? He wants nothing more than to leave this life behind and yet continues to invest in the same behaviors and choices that made this life his normalcy. Why not? But when your shoulders aren’t up to the weight necessary to elevate the motion picture, then you’re just wrong for the part. It’s honestly that simple.
This lack of cohesiveness pervades every single frame of Mute to the point of perhaps confusing viewers about the storyteller’s honest intentions rather than illuminating the brilliance of such choices. Clearly, Leo’s affinity to water – despite having been maimed in it – lies at the heart of what Jones wanted to say about the man; and yet I’ve absolutely no idea of what I’m supposed to make of all those scenes. Subtle hints about a man’s nefariousness arguably needed to be a bit more obvious; and maybe then audiences would’ve felt a greater attachment or repulsion when presented. The lack of definitiveness – all spared in favor of some pretty visuals – kills any momentum the film occasionally develops.
Mute (2018) was produced by Liberty Films Entertainment and Studio Babelsberg. The film is presently available via streaming on Netflix. As for the technical specifications? While I’m no trained video expert, I found a great deal of the provided sights-and-sounds to be very good; however – as I’ve mentioned above – the special effects sequences are of widely varying quality, so much so that several of them appear more than a bit cartoonish and thus distracting to the overall affair. A bit of a misfire, if you ask me. Lastly, if you’re looking for special features? As I viewed this on Netflix, there were no special features under consideration.
Alas … only mildly recommended.
Mute (2018) is the kind of experience that might remind viewers of the vastly greater attempts out there made at Future Noir (compliments to the worlds of James Cameron for creating that sub-genre of Science Fiction). Its greatest problem is that it never effectively does anything with those elements, however, instead throwing them in because they look good and constantly serve to remind us that this is another time and another place … when we’ve already been here before. Some effects sequences are even, sadly, wackily underproduced, giving the film an occasionally amateurish quality that also spoils the mood. Maybe if all of this had been done in CGI it might’ve had a greater chance, but … as is? Well, as is it’s a mess.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that I’m beholden to no one for this review of Mute (2018) as it’s a film I watched on Netflix via my own subscription to the streaming platform.