Landscape with Invisible Hand review – baffling sci-fi satire misses its mark | Sundance 2023
It’s become a depressingly familiar rite of passage for a director of vim and promise to stumble when they ambitiously decide to adapt a book that should have probably stayed on the shelf. Back in 2018, Blue Ruin and Green Room director Jeremy Saulnier came a cropper when he tried to wrangle William Giraldi’s unwieldy Hold the Dark to the screen. At Sundance in 2020, Dee Rees followed Pariah and Mudbound with a clunky, critically loathed attempt to turn Joan Didion’s The Last Thing He Wanted into a coherent film. And just last year Andrew Dominik and Noah Baumbach made their worst films to date with Blonde and White Noise respectively.
A strong attachment to the source material can of course be a good thing, a passion that can be clearly felt on screen, but it can also cloud one’s vision resulting in a messy, no-notes-taken blank cheque project that can often affect what cheques might follow. The latest victim is Cory Finley, who at the intimidatingly young age of 32, has already made two festival hits: dark teen comedy Thoroughbreds and knotty true crime drama Bad Education, featuring a never-better Hugh Jackman. But his third film is a bafflingly botched misfire, a frustratingly off-key adaptation of MT Anderson’s 2017 novel Landscape with Invisible Hand. What makes it that much more frustrating is that it’s not made without visible skill and there are some moving parts that are close to fully working but those that don’t quickly outnumber, a film that gets harder to defend with every scene.
For a short while, it seems like we’re in safe hands. Finley sets up a near-future world not via voiceover but by showing us a selection of scrappy paintings that take us through an alien invasion. The Vuvv is an advanced race who come to Earth with improved technology but at a price, only allowing the elite to prosper. The richest of humans live in island cities that hover above, mostly in service of the Vuvv but getting paid excellently to do so. Those who remain below are barely scraping by, forced to eat imitation food and scavenge for things to sell. Teenager Adam (When They See Us Emmy nominee Asante Blackk) has come to accept a life of poverty, together with his sister and mother (Tiffany Haddish), a lawyer who can no longer earn a living.
When Chloe (Kylie Rogers) joins his school, he’s smitten and invites her family, forced to move from couch to couch, to stay in his basement. The pair find inventive ways to make money before settling on an unusual scheme. The Vuvv is an asexual, aromantic race and so find human courtship to be compelling. Adam and Chloe start dating so that the Vuvv can watch and pay them for it. But when it starts to get in the way of their real relationship, their source of income and the world around them starts to fall apart.
There’s an episodic nature to how the plot then plays out, with the pair involved in a legal battle with the Vuvv which leads to Adam’s mother having to temporarily marry an alien which leads to a string of new setups, each less investing than the last. In adapting Anderson’s novel, Finley has decided to give us what feels more like a hugely truncated TV series, stopping and starting with such abandon that it’s wearying to keep up. The themes here are mostly rather simple with the aliens enslaving humans through extreme capitalism and expressing conservative values learned from old sitcoms, resembling a crude metaphor for a far-right government. It’s reminiscent of 2019’s uneven sci-fi thriller Captive State and also Cadwell Turnbull’s novel The Lesson, aliens as aggressors accentuating class divisions.
The lessons learnt, about the selfishness of one percenters and the exploitation of artists, are mostly rather obvious, the kind of things that might seem enlightened two joints in (capitalism is, like, bad yeah) but otherwise do very little to inspire much of a debate. Whenever Finley does happen upon an interesting idea or scenario, he’s quickly leapt onto something else, next episode playing automatically. The rules of the world at large are confusingly vague, we’re given a narrow focus on a larger story leading to questions the film isn’t able to answer. It feels like the work of someone who is so confident in their own knowledge of the book that they’ve wrongly assumed we know it quite as well. It doesn’t help that the sci-fi elements are so poorly designed, the aesthetic of both the aliens and their habitats proving rather distractingly ugly to look at.
It’s a shame as there is some shine amongst the murk. Finley manages to mostly dial down the visual quirk, something too many young directors would have made unbearable, and Blackk is an extremely charming lead with instant movie star magnetism. If anyone does end up seeing this film then he’ll surely be vaulted to the top of many casting wish-lists but it’s a major if because quite what the film is and who it’s for remains a head-scratcher, a stilted jumble of somethings boiling down to nothing. Third time unlucky.