The Imagination of Deterioration: Dystopia, Climate Change, and the Society of the Spectacle in David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future

David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future (2022) represents a rousing return to the body horror with which its director exploded onto the independent-film scene in the 1970s and 1980s. Like much of Cronenberg’s early work, the body horror in this film is largely related to the erosion of the boundary between technology and the human body, with a special emphasis on surgery. In this case, though, there are especially strong science fiction elements included in the film, which takes place in a decaying near-future world in which climate change and other deteriorating conditions have led not only to a general decline in the quality of life (both material and spiritual) but also to strange (and sometimes macabre) mutations in the human body itself. Much of the film is devoted to building a general atmosphere of deterioration that can well be captured by Raymond Williams’ notion of “structures of feeling.” Meanwhile, the central plot of the film involves the rise of surgery as a spectator sport in a sort of desperate attempt to recover something real amid the general sense of numbness and despair brought about by this pessimistic structure of feeling. Accordingly, the dystopian future society envisioned in the film can be described as an extreme, extrapolated version of the “society of the spectacle” that Guy Debord saw as the inevitable result of the commodifying tendencies of late consumer capitalism. In this way, Crimes of the Future—though set in an abstract, nonspecific time and place and filled with bizarre, nonrealist imagery—has a great deal to say about the world we live in today.

The Dystopian Horror of Crimes of the Future

Early films such as Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), and Videodrome (1981) established David Cronenberg as the presiding genius of body horror, a mode that also remains crucial to The Fly (1986), Dead Ringers (1988), Crash (1996), and eXistenz (1999). Like all body horror, these films are all marked by graphic reminders of the physicality of the human body, images that force viewers to come face-to-face with their own mortality and thus well illustrate Robin Wood’s influential notion of horror as fundamentally drive by a confrontation with repressed fears. For Wood, “the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses, its re-emergence dramatized, as in our nightmares, as an object of horror, a matter for terror, and the happy ending (when it exists) typically signifying the restoration of repression” (Wood 68). What is particularly distinctive about Cronenberg’s films is the extent to which they focus their body horror on technological intrusions into the human body (with a special emphasis on surgery), thus adding important science fictional elements. This characteristics is also central to Crimes of the Future, whose central character, Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), is suffering from a rapidly spreading condition known as “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome,” in which individuals experience a variety of sudden mutations, leading to biological changes in individuals that might otherwise take place over many generations of evolution[1]. In particular, Tenser has started growing new internal organs, which his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux), a former trauma surgeon, then surgically removes as a form of performance art.

Crimes of the Future has been widely seen as a resurgence of surgery-related images of Cronenbergian body horror, which almost gives the film the feel of nostalgic fan service. Actually, however, the film moves beyond Cronenberg’s earlier films in the extent to which it employs horror imagery and motifs to punctuate what is fundamentally a science fiction matrix, as opposed to earlier films such as The Fly and eXistenZ, which employ science fiction motifs to support what are fundamentally horror films. And Crimes of the Future tilts toward science fiction for two different reasons. First, itoperates epistemologically more in the mode of science fiction than horror, via a classic mechanism of Suvinian cognitive estrangement that constantly throws new images and information at us without any preparation or explanation. Foloowing Darko Suvin’s classic characterization of the workings of science fiction, we, as the audience, gradually realize that the world of this film differs from our world in important ways, and we must gradually piece together bits of data to try to form a picture of what this world is like, how it is different from the world to which we are accustomed, and what those differences might mean. In contrast, Cronenberg’s earlier body horror films essentially take place in the American/Canadian society contemporary to the production of the films, so we can start from there as an interpretive baseline.

Crimes of the Future is primarily about world-building, about the society in which Tenser and Caprice perform their art, rather than about Tenser and Caprice themselves. Indeed, though Crimes of the Future gives us very few details regarding the social and political organization of the society in which its action takes place, it is clear that this film is primarily a work of dystopian fiction, using its graphic images of surgery to emphasize the impact of its dystopian conditions on human beings, somewhat in the same way that Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) uses that rat cage to the face of Winston Smith as a graphic reminder of the ruthlessness of Oceania’s ruling Party. The world of Crimes of the Future displays a number of classic dystopian characteristics, such as an emphasis on surveillance and registration, as in the case of the supposedly top-secret “National Organ Registry,” which has been charged with tracking the epidemic of mutations that seems, among other thing, to be causing individuals to sprout “novel” internal organs. This task makes the registry sound like a powerful (and somewhat sinister) government agency, though all we see of it is a small, seedy office, in keeping with the generally deteriorating character of this whole society. That office, meanwhile, is staffed by the investigators Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart), who seem like anything but evil geniuses.

On the other hand, the registry is a subsidiary of the larger New Vice Unit, a designation, we are told, that sounds “sexier” than “Evolutionary Derangement,” and thus attracts funding more easily. This unit is represented in the film by Detective Cope (Welket Bungué), who seems a bit more efficiently sinister than Wippet and Timlin and who, among other things, employs Tenser as an undercover informer, complicating the usual dystopian structure, in which the central protagonists attempt to rebel against the dystopian regime. There is, however, a group of subversives who oppose the official regime in Crimes of the Future, led by Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman), who heads an underground group that works to undermine official power. In particular, they embrace mutation—and even hope to further it through surgical modifications that give them the ability to digest plastics and other pollutants—and thus to help clean up the environmental contamination that is perhaps the single most important defining characteristic of this future world. In this sense, the rebels of the film can be seen as stand-ins for the environmental activists of our own world, trying to fight pollution and climate change. They believe that humans need to change their biology better to cope with climate change, but one could take their project as a signal that humans need to change their ways in general before it is too late to prevent a climate catastrophe.

Meanwhile, in a surprising development, Lang’s son Brecken (Sozos Sotiris) has apparently inherited the digestive abilities that his father had attained through surgery. Brecken thus functions for the rebels as a sort of Chosen One, the Miracle Child who has the potential to change everything. When we learn that Brecken only eats “plastics and other synthetic things,” the implication that the products of modern industrial technology have invaded his biology seems clear: plastics, after all, are the iconic form of a manmade material that is damaging to the environment. It is also not insignificant that synthetic plastics are made from crude oil, natural gas, and coal, the very fossil fuels that are the main drivers of climate change.

Not everyone, however, welcomes the sort of mutation represented by Brecken. Indeed, the authorities have formed the New Vice Unit because they are alarmed about mutations in general, and especially about the kind of changes being promoted by the rebels. As Detective Cope tells Tenser, “They are evolving away from the human path. It can’t be allowed to continue.” Meanwhile, the filmbegins with a shocking opening sequence in which Brecken is ultimately murdered by his own mother, Djuna Dotrice (Lihi Kornowski), the estranged wife of Lang. When Tenser later suggests to her that he wouldn’t kill his own son because he was a mutant, Djuna responds with an indication of the horror with which many in this society have responded to the rising tide of mutations, “But he wouldn’t be your own son. He wouldn’t even be a little kid.” Asked what he would be, she says flatly, “A creature, a thing.”

Djuna’s reaction, like the work of the New Vice Unit in general, is driven by a form of replacement theory, by the fear that these new humans might eventually come to replace unmutated humans. In this sense, the dystopian conditions that prevail in this society are highly reminiscent of the increasingly prominent fear among white Christian nationalist extremists that the United States (which they view as an inherently white Christian nation) is in danger of being overrun by dangerous hordes of nonwhite and nonChristian newcomers who immigrate to the United States in alarming numbers and then multiply at spectacular rates once they arrive here, thus threatening to “replace” white Christians as the dominant demographic group in America. And, of course, replacement theory, while fundamentally driven by racism, can also be seen as being informed by a horror of change in general, as a staunch preference for preserving the status quo over any sort of genuine innovation.

One might here compare Crimes of the Future with Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God (2017), a novel that, in fact, has a great deal in common with Crimes of the Future in this sense, even though its satire is more specifically aimed at Christian Nationalist groups that respond to a wave of mutations in the American population of the novel by seeking to seize control of the entire reproductive process in order to ensure that only unmutated babies will be delivered. Still, Future Home helps to illuminate Crimes of the Future because Erdrich makes it quite clear that the mutations occurring in her novel result from climate change and environmental degradation, something that is also likely in Cronenberg’s film, though there the cause of the mutations is only hinted at.

After Brecken is killed by his mother, Lang recruits Tenser and Caprice to perform a public autopsy of Brecken so that the boy’s marvelous mutations can be revealed to the world. Unfortunately, Caprice finds that the dead boy’s insides seem shockingly ugly and grotesquely contaminated, his organs heavily and bizarrely tattooed. By now an experienced performer, she then quickly improvises, continuing her narration, ending with an apparent literary allusion: “So we see that the crudeness and the desperation and the ugliness of the world has seeped inside even our youngest and most beautiful. And we see that the world is killing our children from the inside out. Let us create a map that will guide us into the heart of darkness.” It turns out, meanwhile, that the strange condition of the boy’s body has been caused by the fact that Timlin has replaced all of his inner organs with the grotesque ones that Caprice finds in the autopsy. It appears, then, that the rebels have been thwarted, though the film ends on a note of uncertainty, with the possibility that Tenser himself might have evolved to be able to digest plastics.

The Imagination of Deterioration: Structures of Feeling in Crimes of the Future

The dystopian texture of Crimes of the Future is established mostly by the building of atmosphere, rather than via the plot. The mysterious mutations that are taking place in the world of the film contribute to a general sense of anxiety, and the fact that even human biology has become unstable certainly suggests a state of crisis. Virtually all of the visuals in the film, meanwhile, suggest a state of material decay. All in all, then, the atmosphere that informs this “future” would seem to be a sort of allegorized version of the present time in which the film was released, a time in which a global pandemic that had just killed millions was still far from over, while a gnawing awareness of the increasing danger posed by climate change was creeping up even on those who preferred not to think about it. Beginning with an opening shot that contains a capsized ship, we see one image after another of wreckage and dysfunction in Crimes of the Future. Meanwhile, every interior space we see in the film seems depressingly dark and grimy, badly in need of cleaning and painting.

The overall anxious atmosphere of decline in the film can perhaps best be understood by an appeal to the notion of “structures of feeling,” first put forth by Raymond Williams back in the 1970s. Noting how social and political analyses are often applied in past tense to phenomena that are now complete and can be studied and understood in terms of fully-formed concepts such as “ideology,” Williams argues that, in order to study the present, we need less formal concepts, such as structures of feeling, which describe an overall sense of the world that is still evolving. For Williams, these structures of feeling “can be defined as social experiences in solution, as distinct from other social semantic formations which have been precipitated and are more evidently and more immediately available” (133–34).

Williams also suggests that structures of feeling, because they are vaguely defined and still evolving, are often first clearly stated in certain prophetic works of art. One thinks here, for example, of Susan Sontag’s well-known notion of the “imagination of disaster” to describe a general sense of impending sudden doom that resulted from the tensions of the Cold War, tensions that were widely reflected in the panoply of alien invasion and postapocalyptic narratives that dominated the science fiction films of the 1950s. In contrast, one might describe the structure of feeling of our own time as more of a vague uneasiness, as a sort of “imagination of deterioration,” informed principally by the slow violence[2] of climate change, but recently boosted by the COVID-19 pandemic as well[3]. We are also surrounded by crumbling infrastructure and a widespread sense that crime and the economy are bad and getting worse. Meanwhile, in the U.S., we live in a time of political crisis and charlatanism, with fascism lurking in the shadows, barely even bothering to disguise itself. Crimes of the Future addresses this structure of feeling in its general depiction of a deteriorating future world.

For Sontag, the science fiction films of the 1950s ultimately tended to allay our fears and thus to operate “in complicity with the abhorrent,” rather than to serve as a cry of protest against the insanity of the Cold War arms race (225). The open-ended Crimes of the Future, on the other hand, provides very little solace or reassurance. After all, the imagination of deterioration is thoroughly informed by a sense that things are not only bad but are getting worse and will continue to do so, leaving little room to imagine improvement. Moreover, while nuclear holocaust is easy to identify as the source of Sontag’s imagination of disaster, Meanwhile, the imagination of deterioration results more from a gloominess the vagueness of which can be attributed to the simple fact that climate change is, in reality, an extremely large and complex phenomenon, along the lines of the “hyperobjects” discussed by Timothy Morton as being so vast that we simply can’t get our heads around them.

It is useful here to recall Fredric Jameson’s widely cited comments in relation to the popularity of postapocalyptic narratives due to what he sees as the failure of utopian imagination in the postmodern era. Writing in the early 1990s, Jameson refers specifically to the apocalyptic effects of climate change when he notes that “it seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism” (Seeds xii). Roughly a decade later, Jameson elaborates his point about postapocalyptic narratives by noting that, amid a general postmodern loss of the ability to think historically, contemporary culture has largely lost the ability to envision the end of capitalism and the rise of something better via any sort of normal historical process. As a result, our culture has become fascinated by visions of the destruction of civilization itself as the only way to end capitalism. As Jameson puts it (in a widely quoted, but somewhat enigmatic, declaration), “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world” (“Future Cities” 76).

I would argue that the imagination of deterioration is the next stage in the decline of the historical imagination described by Jameson. In particular, Crimes of the Future suggests that we have now reached the stage when we can no longer imagine the end of the world and can instead imagine only a slow, inevitable decline that continues forever, with no conclusion in sight. There is no indication that the decaying world of Crimes of the Future is the result of some cataclysmic event so much as the slow and steady decline of the natural environment, accompanied by a concomitant decline in public social and political structures and rise in personal pessimism. Indeed, the imagination of deterioration is far more pessimistic than the imagination of disaster: the latter of these visions posits an apocalypse that might lead to rebirth and renewal; the former posits nothing but more of the same ongoing deterioration.

One of the key signs of deterioration in the world of Crimes of the Future is the strange state of that world’s technologies. Technology, after all, has been one of the key drivers of modernity from the Industrial Revolution onward, both in terms of dramatic improvements in quality of life and in terms of the environmental effects that drive climate change and threaten to make the earth uninhabitable.Though the title suggests that the film takes place in the future, the world of the film certainly doesn’t seem futuristic, because it lacks the gleaming future technologies that we associate with science fiction, substituting instead grotesque Cronenbergian technologies that seem to belong in a horror film. When we do see more conventional technological devices in the film, they do not seem futuristic at all, including a couple of shots of antique-looking CRT television sets. These sets serve, not as a sign that the action might actually be set in our past, so much as a reminder that the future we are looking at is not the gleaming, utopian one of classic Gernsbackian science fiction. It is a future in which conditions, technological and otherwise, have severely declined, a dystopian future that recalls the retro technology of something like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985)[4], though with the added Cronenbergian touch that much of the technology looks so biological. The message seems to be clear: we cannot count on technology alone to save us. Technology, in fact, might be a big part of the problem.

Films, of course, have been warning us of the dangers of encroaching technology for a long time. One thinks, for example, of Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) and its iconic image of the poor Tramp being fed through the gears of a factory machine like film through a projector. Indeed, it is significant that one of the key devices that warn of the dehumanizing potential of technology in Modern Times is the “Billows Feeding Machine,” a device that is designed automatically to feed workers while they stay at work on the line, thus eliminating the need for lunch breaks. This machine thus represents the ultimate in the use of technology to exploit workers. Predictably, it goes berserk, pummeling the Tramp and leaving him covered with food. The automatic feeding chairs in Crimes of the Future don’t work much better, adding an additional note of horror through their skeleton-like appearance and through their even more invasive activity, which includes manipulating the entire body during the feeding process, supposedly to optimize digestion.

These chairs remind us that most of the technological devices that we see in Crimes of the Future harken back to Cronenberg’s earliest body horror films, though their strange hybrid appearance, seemingly combining technology and biology, is perhaps most directly reminiscent of the devices in eXistenZ (1999), which strongly infuses its body horror with science fiction. In Crimes of the Future, though, this combination, more than in Cronenberg’s earliest films, points to the way technology has corrupted nature, which is one of the film’s clearest signs that we are looking at a film in which human technological development has invaded and infected the natural world so thoroughly that they can no longer be separated. Meanwhile, this process comes at a cost to humans, who have also been infected by technology, even if they can no longer be infected by microbes. The message is clear: we cannot change the natural world with technology without also suffering repercussions that change humans because humans cannot be separated from nature.

Crimes of the Future and the Society of the Spectacle: A Structure of Unfeeling?

Crimes of the Future does much more than simply employ imagery to build an atmosphere that suggests a world permeated by the imagination of deterioration. It also interrogates this imagination through its central plot, which centers on the performance art of Caprice and Tenser, in which Caprice, while narrating to the gathered crowd, removes Tenser’s “novel” organs, literally converting his interior physiology into a spectacle for public display. The show that we actually see in the film is conducted in a rather grimy-looking room that hardly looks like an operating theater. Caprice uses a strange, multi-colored remote to control the robotic arms of the automated surgical unit, which seems to be constructed from bizarre-looking bone. One of those old-style CRT televisions off to the side of the surgical unit displays the words “BODY IS REALITY.” It’s an almost desperate declaration, intended for an audience that seems hungry for reality, seeking it in the human body, with everything else in this society having been converted into images that separate humans from reality. Unfortunately, though, this performance demonstrates that the human body has been reduced to images as well.

It has, in particular, been reduced to the status of spectacle. The crucial referent here Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967), a classic Marxist analysis of the tendency of consumer capitalist societies to move toward the commodification of everything, the total triumph of exchange value over use value, and the colonization of reality by images. Debord’s analysis of the society of the spectacle is now more than half a century old, but it has become even more relevant in the decades succeeding its appearance, during which the evolution of late capitalist society has proceeded very much in the way Debord’s original work envisioned. Debord’s society of the spectacle is virtually identical to the kind of society that would eventually, thanks primarily to the work of Jameson, come to be associated closely with postmodernism.

The society that we see in Crimes of the Future does not, at first, look very much like what we have come to expect from the society of the spectacle, which would involve flashy media events, perhaps along the lines of the contests in the Hunger Games franchise. Here, while we do see individuals recording the live surgical performances (on small, handheld cameras), there is no indication that these events are broadcast anywhere. In addition, there is very little in the way of dazzling showmanship in these performances. But the imagination of deterioration that runs through the film surely runs contrary to the flash and sparkle of the conventional spectacle. This film does, after all, take place in a sort of future, even if that “future” has to do more with a thematic extrapolation than a temporal one. And, in this future, the spectacle itself has decayed and deteriorated to the point that it is a shadow of its former self.

Still, Crimes of the Future as a whole absolutely epitomizes the notion of a society in which reality has been superseded by images, because this is a film in which almost everything we see seems to stand for something else. The entire construction of Crimes of the Future seems to cry out for interpretation: almost everything that occurs is so odd one suspects that it must be a way to create a fresh perspective on something else, though it isn’t always clear what. As Tomris Laffly put it in an early review, “this operatic science fiction is filled with vague, half-finished stabs at the notions of evolution, societal disorder, and the tragedy that is the vanishing of environmental ecosystems, the ultimate crime committed by mankind.” In one of the film’s most important scenes, Caprice nods toward the film’s invitation to exegesis as she prepares to conduct that performative autopsy on Brecken, narrating the process to the crowd of spectators: “Let us dive deep into the body of Brecken. And, like professors of literature, search for the meaning that lies locked in the poem that was Brecken.” This notion of literature professors digging into a poem like a surgeon digging into a body to perform an autopsy teeters dangerously close to the edge of comedy—as do many moments in this film. Nevertheless, Caprice has a point, and we, as spectators to the film, must similarly seek meaning at every turn.

One of the key consequences of late capitalist society that Jameson sees reflected in postmodern art is what he calls the “waning of affect,” a general decline in the ability to experience genuinely deep emotional connections that, for Jameson is related to the psychic fragmentation of postmodern subjects, leaving them too unstable to be able to feel and experience things as deeply as people once did. In Crimes of the Future, the most obvious allegorical indicator of this sort of waning of affect—which makes the Imagination of Deterioration more a structure of unfeeling than a structure of feeling­—is the general loss of the ability to experience pain, which stands in as a sort of physical objective correlative for the inability to experience deep emotion. Individuals in the society are literally numb. But the imagination of deterioration that pervades this film also involves a deterioration of feeling in an emotional and psychological sense. One of the major consequences of the imagination of deterioration is the grim acceptance that conditions are getting worse and worse and that nothing much can be done about it. Meanwhile, much of the film involves attempts by individuals to somehow feel something, somewhat in the mode of the characters in Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), who inflict horrendous injuries on themselves in automobile accidents as a way to try to connect with genuine feeling. In both Crimes of the Future and Crash, meanwhile, the quest to overcome numbness carries a powerful erotic energy, though eroticism in Crimes has also deteriorated, to the point that no one in the film ever actually has sex, despite the fact that everything is so sexually charged. Indeed, there are suggestions in the film that the conventionally erotic, along with so many other emotionally charged categories, has now deteriorated into obsolescence.

After Caprice finishes the show in which she makes a spectacle of Tenser’s inner organs,  the audience gathers for a reception with the artists. Timlin, who seems painfully shy, possibly autistic, approaches the recovering Tenser and says, in the weird robotic whisper that Stewart employs throughout the film, “Surgery is sex, isn’t it? You know it is. Surgery is the new sex.” She is clearly aroused, in her own affect-less way. She tells Tenser, in fact, that, when she was watching Caprice cutting into him, she wanted him to be cutting into her. “Art triumphs once again,” Tenser tells Caprice after Timlin leaves, suggesting the way in which representations that suggest sex have now replaced sex itself.

In a key later scene, the obviously starstruck Timlin corners Tenser in her office and explains that her work with the registry exposes her to a great deal of spectacle: “It’s, in our line of work, very easy to be dazzled by the glamour of the performance world, the charismatic people we meet, like you.” She tells him that he is the center of the world of the registry, that what he creates lights up her world. She describes Wippet and herself as “drab little bureaucratic insects,” who pale in comparison with a star like himself. The seeming reference to Kafka here is surely intentional on the part of Cronenberg, if not of Timlin, and much of this film has a Kafkaesque feel, even if it blows past Kafka in its vision of a world regimented to the point of absurdity. Then, in the film’s most straightforward attempt at a conventional sex scene, Timlin launches an awkward attempt at all-out seduction, beginning with weird version of talking dirty, noting that Tenser’s “powerful gravitational field” is causing her to imagine “hurtling towards you, plunging into your black hole that pulls all light into it.” She keeps moving toward him as they continue to talk, while he keeps backing away, trying to change the subject. She’d love, she says, to have him inside her—or at least she says she’d love to be in that surgical module with him operating on her. Then she launches herself at him physically, inserting her fingers somewhat clumsily into his mouth as if searching for something. What she is searching for, apparently, in some kind of human connection. She withdraws her finger from his mouth and puts it in her own mouth; then, she even tries a conventional kiss, but he immediately backs off and starts loudly attempting to clear his throat, which has been trying to close up throughout the film. “I’m sorry,” he tells her. “I’m not very good at the old sex.”

And, lest we think that his lack of interest in a sexual connection with Timlin arises out of loyalty to Caprice, it should be noted that he and Caprice never have the “old sex,” either, but confine themselves to the machine-mediated new sex of surgery. In one scene, Tenser even uses their equipment to perform some minor “practice” surgery on a gloriously nude Caprice, to which she responds as if to sex. Tenser suggests that she might be in the next show, but she says, “Maybe this is just for us.” Tenser then removes his own clothing and joins her in the device, setting the control on automatic and lying with her as the machine cuts into both of them simultaneously. This is about as close as they can come to any sort of genuine emotional connection, though there is another even more sexually explicit scene that occurs a few minutes later, after Tenser has pays a call on another surgeon, Dr. Nasatir (Yorgos Pirpassopoulos). Recruiting Tenser to appear in an “Inner Beauty Pageant,” that will bring surgery to a new level of spectacle, Nasatir has installed a sort of abdominal zipper that will make it easier to access Tenser’s inner organs so that he can compete with others in the pageant. Caprice is a bit nervous that Tenser might be moving away from her with this new move, but he reassures her by suggesting that this zipper could never replace the sexual aspect of their interpersonal surgery. “Zippers have their own sex appeal,” she says suggestively (in a moment that takes the analogy between sex and surgery to a hilarious new level). She drops to her knees, unzips his surgical zipper, and starts to perform oral sex on the thusly opened wound. “Careful,” he says, “don’t spill.” In this moment, Tenser and Caprice do seem to establish an odd sexual connection, though its poignancy is undermined to some extent by the outrageous riff on oral sex. In any case, the moment also shows the extremes to which people in this world have to go to achieve such a connection, to feel anything at all.


While Crimes of the Future is, in many ways, a return to the body horror of director David Cronenberg’s early films, it moves beyond those films in its emphasis on issues that impact the entire modern world, not just a few imperiled individuals. Crimes of the Future is a dystopian narrative that replaces the political details that usually mark that genre with visual details, including visceral body horror imagery, as it seeks to construct a future society that is designed to convey what Raymond Williams called the “structure of feeling” that informs our present moment at the beginning of the 2020s. In reference to the “imagination of disaster” that Susan Sontag identified in relation to Cold War narratives of the 1950s, this structure of feeling can be described as the “imagination of deterioration.” It is marked by a general sense that most of our social and political systems are in a state of slow, inevitable decline. Several details in the film, however, suggest that the most fundamental force behind this sense of decline is climate change. The film also suggests that the phenomenon of climate change is a hyperobject that is so overwhelming in its seriousness and complexity that our current social systems and ways of thinking are inadequate to deal with it, largely because consumer capitalism inherently distances itself and individual subjects from physical reality, which is replaced with image and spectacle, figured in this film in the conversion of surgery into a spectator sport. This turn to what Guy Debord called the “society of the spectacle” cannot compensate for the sense of doom that accompanies the imagination of deterioration, instead contributing to the “waning of affect” that Fredric Jameson has associated with postmodernism and late capitalism. The characters in Crimes of the Future seem poised to go to any extent to try to feel something, while nevertheless repressing their vague awareness of the creeping doom represented by climate change.

Works Cited

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. 1967. Translated by Ken Knabb, Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014.

Erdrich, Louis. Future Home of the Living God. 2017. Harper Perennial, 2018.

Jameson, Fredric. “Future City.” New Left Review, vol. 21, May-June 2003, pp. 65–79.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press, 1991.

Jameson, Fredric. The Seeds of Time. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Laffly, Tomris. “Crimes of the Future., 3 June 2022, Accessed 22 December 2022.

Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press, 2011.

Sontag, Susan. “The Imagination of Disaster.” Against Interpretation and Other Essays. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966, pp.209–25.

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre.  Yale University Press, 1979.

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford University Press, 1977.

Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan and Beyond. Revised and expanded edition, Columbia University Press, 2003.


[1] Evolution doesn’t really work this way, of course, but Crimes of the Future is not the sort of film that is concerned with scientific accuracy. It is essentially a satire and is willing to stretch the science in order to make satirical points.

[2] This widely cited term was coined by Rob Nixon to describe the slow pace (relative to things like nuclear holocaust) at which climate change is causing violent destruction around the world.

[3] There is no mention in the film of COVID or any other infectious disease—which makes sense, given that humans in this world are now generally impervious to infection. Yet the fact that Tenser generally wears a face mask when he goes out in public serves as a clear visual cue that COVID forms part of the mood of this film.

[4] And, of course, the retro technologies of Brazil seem to riff on the generally depressed conditions that prevail in Orwell’s Oceania.