Landscape with Invisible Hand (MGM, R)

Young St. Louis-born director Cory Finley has quickly proven himself to be a unique and dynamic voice in American film. 2018’s Thoroughbreds and 2020’s Bad Education displayed his aptitude for getting striking performances from actors of all ages, and for mining compelling human drama from thriller-adjacent stories. His latest, Landscape with Invisible Hand feels more of a piece with two other unique 2023 visions of sociopolitical malaise: Asteroid City and Beau is Afraid. While both have their champions of course (I much prefer Asteroid to Afraid), those two films have proved somewhat divisive, and I have no doubt that Landscape will as well, although it’s not quite as directly challenging nor formally inventive.

Based on the novel of the same name by M.T. Anderson, Landscape follows Adam Campbell (Asante Blackk), a teenage painter in a near-future that has been infiltrated by the Vuvv, an intergalactic alien species who look something like crabs who’ve lost their shells. Adam gets acquainted with Vuvv customs when he starts dating Chloe (Kylie Rogers), a classmate whose family is in dire economic straits. The two young humans decide to livestream their courtship for the Vuvv who pay to watch. The Vuvv pay for this privilege because of their fascination with human emotions; they are asexual and reproduce by budding, so they have very little experience with romantic love as a species.

If you’ve ever seen Invader Zim, the Vuvv basically behave like the dim-witted totalitarian Irken empire, except they do have some genuine curiosity and often like to put a queasily happy, neoliberal face on their world domination. In this way, they have become the Earth’s new ruling class, their strange tentacles dipping into everything, from education and art to travel and commerce. I suspect viewers will have many different interpretations of this film as it does tackle a number of different issues, but the one that rang truest to me was a political one. The Vuvv could essentially be thought of as corporate oligopoly — the thing that generally makes everyone’s lives worse, but seems impossible to totally detach oneself from in this day and age. To my mind, the film essentially seems to be asking why we allow fellow human beings to control us in this way when we certainly would more outwardly detest and resist this control if an invading species attempted it. Because of this central thesis and a few other factors, Landscape fits neatly into the lineage of recent mainstream political protest films like Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, though Finley’s film is more mellow and subtle overall, leaning more on drama and gentle observation than comedy.

There’s definitely comedy here, though. The Vuvv speak in a rapid sign language with their paddle/tentacle appendages, a visual quirk which Finley milks for all its worth. The plot involves several reversals of allegiance, which are also very entertaining and powerfully relatable when applied to today’s socioeconomic predicaments. Some of these story elements don’t end up meaning all that much to the overall arc of the film, however. These mostly involve what sometimes feel like sidetracks with Adam’s mother, Beth (Tiffany Haddish), and Chloe’s father, Mr. Marsh (Josh Hamilton). It’s not that these sections aren’t interesting and don’t add new layers of commentary, it’s just that they aren’t paced quite right, and thus feel much more like filler than they should.

Landscape with Invisible Hand may not be an absolutely perfect film, but I’m glad it exists. It traffics in some pretty important ideas in a fun and interesting way, and it never talks down to the audience. While it may be a bit too long and leave a few stray plot threads undercooked, it’s more valuable for the stray thoughts it may engender in your mind. | George Napper

One comment

  1. This article provides valuable insights into the film Landscape with Invisible Hand – a fascinating exploration of the economic and social implications of an invisible hand guiding society’s progress – definitely worth checking out!

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