Surgery is the new sex
What, exactly, makes us human? Or inhuman?
Those questions animate David Cronenberg’s disturbing new film, Crimes of the Future. The questions are not asked straightforwardly.
Scene 1: A beautiful boy plays on the seashore. Behind him, a wrecked cruise ship lies on its side in shallow water, rusting away. (The holiday is over.)
Scene 2: The beautiful boy brushes his teeth and then crawls under the sink begins to slowly eat the plastic wastebasket. As he chews and swallows the crunchy the plastic, ghostly white saliva dribbles down his chin. His mother watches in horror from the doorway.
Scene 3: The boy is asleep in his bed. His mother tiptoes into the room and stealthily smothers him with a pillow.
Only much later in the movie do we hear her defense. He was not human, she claims. He was a rodent, a monster. She did not murder a child. She exterminated an alien.
The next scene develops the motif. A grotesque man is groaning in his sleep. When he wakes, a woman inserts a laparoscope into his abdomen. She is excited to find there a new organ. They discuss plans to excise the organ later that day in a public performance.
After the performance, the grotesque man operates on his partner. As the knife penetrates her flawless skin, she moans with sexual pleasure. Surgery is the new sex. Old- fashioned sex is no longer desirable or necessary. Reproduction is in the lab. The state tries, unsuccessfully, to police evolution while criminals coax it in new directions.
The movie culminates with a public autopsy of the smothered boy, evoking the long history of public autopsies in western culture. In the movie, as in history, such public autopsies serve both political and educational purposes.
The film raises questions about the crimes of the present associated with medicine, genomics, artificial intelligence, and the boundaries of what we consider human. A programmer at Google is fired for claiming that an artificial intelligence chatbot had achieved sentience. A genetics researcher in China is jailed for editing the genomes of embryos. Some athletes (and their surgeons) are lauded for medical interventions that enable high performance while others are banned for using performance-enhancing drugs.
We are learning new ways to be authors of our own lives. That is the ultimate crime and the ultimate scientific achievement. It is Frankenstein and Brave New World, Blade Runner and Minority Report. Forbidden knowledge has a powerful allure. Forbidden stories push the boundaries of what we desire to hear. Horror draws us in and repels us at the same time. We accept and romanticize the ultimate lottery of sexual reproduction, even as we seek to modify it. At each step, criminals push the boundaries while oracles warn against hubris. With gene editing, we can change the way we think about what it means to be embodied creatures subject to the whims of chance.
The repeated scenic motif in the film is the rusting ship. We are shipwrecked, marooned on a dying planet, living in a synthetic environment. Cronenberg gives a mixes message. We got ourselves into this mess. We might yet puzzle-solve our way out. But we may not like, or even recognize, the places where we end up.