Director: Duncan Jones
Screenplay: Duncan Jones
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux
Runtime: 126 Minutes
It’s starting to feel like the collective of cinema and genre fans might have put too much faith in Duncan Jones. Jones stormed onto the scene in 2009 with the spectacular Moon, a lowkey hard science fiction film with a superfluity to its themes and worldbuilding intricacies. Since then though, he’s been a filmmaker of gradually diminishing returns. Though 2011 blockbuster Source Code was fun, its own internal logic doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny, and despite the best of intentions, Warcraft proved a muddled mess of compromised vision.
Mute comes with its own unique baggage entirely, arriving as Jones’ long-gestating passion project acting as a spiritual successor to Moon, taking place in the same universe but following its own noir story set entirely in a futuristic vision of Berlin. It’s a welcome change of pace, but the immense level of anticipation surrounding the film since its inception to its Netflix release may have built up a vision of something that the film itself would never be able to live up to – because Mute certainly feels like something that’s been sat on a shelf for way too long.
Besides the setting of Berlin in the year 2052, and a cityscape of visual reference paying heavy homage Blade Runner, there is little to no reason as to why the film has to be set in such a location or time, let alone as a science fiction film at all. Its little more than polished and derivative set dressing, and its noir mystery storyline could easily have fit into any other setting and had the exact same effect.
Sadly, that effect means little at all, as it turns out the story that Jones has been wanting to tell for years is incredibly simplistic yet overcomplicated by a narrative structure designed to draw out the reveals of information that might have served a greater emotional impact had they been revealed to the audience earlier.
Following the central storyline of mute protagonist Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), your run-of-the-mill Amish bartender who lost his voice in an inexplicable boating accident, who is searching for the love of his life Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). The narrative is interrupted routinely by detours into the lives of black market surgeons Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux), who do little more than act as supposedly comic distractions to the main story until their final act integration into the bigger (smaller) picture.
Its an admirable approach to painting an impression of a sprawling narrative of vignettes set in a wide world of underground gangster operations, sketchy bars and sex trafficking in Berlin, but there’s so little energy to the pace as it slowly trudges to its reveals through endless dialogue scenes, and uninspired direction of chase and action sequences that hold little tension or engagement as they are mostly shot and staged very poorly.
As said before, there is little to no reason as to why this had to be in the genre that it is. Beyond one or two moments in which the voice-activated technology of the environment strands Leo incapable of following through on his quest, its nothing but visual interruption that only occasionally offers up the kind of rousing bonkers imagination of other contemporaries such as Luc Besson or the Wachowskis. Even the occasional appearance of Sam Rockwell’s character from Moon popping in and out of new bulletins adds nothing while the film clumsily lingers on them as obvious Easter Eggs.
Worsening the issue is that the characters are insipid, as much as the performances want to fight against them. Try as he might, Skarsgård is a blank slate protagonist whose background heritage and mute affect do little to add depth as he struggles between two extremes of emotion while also being overly subtle. Rudd is the only one trying to get mileage out of his role as a psychotic darkly comic character straining to get a laugh while doing unreasonable things, while Theroux’s character is massively undercut by a genuinely uncomfortable reveal of his own sexual desires early on that never makes him compelling, and just makes every confrontation and dialogue scene with him incredibly awkward and discomforting in the wrong way.
Discomfort and disappointment is the mood that the film sits in, and while it does work in moments such as an intense confrontation between Bill and Duck regarding Duck’s inclinations, its quickly forgotten about by the next scene in which they’re painting the town red with glee while Christmas music plays in the background.
Its perplexing that even at its length it covers such little ground, but Jones’ weird melting pot of likes and ideas fail to coalesce into something exclusive or meaningful. Not every science fiction film has to be revolutionary or even thoughtful, but aiming high and falling so short given the talent and Jones’ position as a filmmaker makes this feel like a much bigger let-down than it might have done otherwise.