A Dark and Disturbing Sci-Fi World of Gangsters, Sadists and Pedophiles

Netflix’s ‘Mute,’ the latest film by Duncan Jones (‘Moon’), stars Alexander Skarsgard as a man who journeys into the underworld of neo-Berlin in search of his missing love.

Keith Bernstein/Netflix

Duncan Jones has been working on Mute for years. He spoke about it while doing press for his first film, Moon (2009), and had been writing and rewriting the script for nearly a decade before that. That the film is a labor of love is both a curse and a blessing. There’s a lot in it that’s absolutely fascinating, and a host of good performances, but it’s a Jenga tower—though I admire its ambition, the missing blocks, in combination with poorly handled sexual politics and a weak plot, make it untenable in the end.

The film is set in a Blade Runner-esque future (Jones specifically cited the film as an inspiration) and stars Alexander Skarsgård as Leo, a man who was rendered mute in a childhood accident and hasn’t had any corrective surgery due to his Amish faith. When his girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh) goes missing, he descends into the seedy underbelly of neo-Berlin to figure out what happened to her.

Given the bare bones of the plot, it’s not surprising to discover that Mute was originally conceived to take place in contemporary London. It’s tempting to say that the movie might have been better if it had stuck to that setting, as that would have easily taken care of one of Mute’s biggest problems: there’s no reason for it to be set where it is, and the fact that it takes place in the future (and a version of the future that we’ve already seen countless times, no less) only creates distractions.

The idea of a futuristic version of Berlin instead of the usual vision of neo-Tokyo or Hong Kong that science fiction tends to lean into is a fascinating one. Germany’s history, particularly in the post-war period, is ripe for exploration when it comes to how it will grow and adapt in the future. The possibilities, however, are posited and then left at the door. Beyond changing all of the visible signage to German and English text, there’s nothing in the film that makes the landscape unique from Blade Runner and its cultural offspring. The detail of Leo’s Amish faith feels similarly extraneous, as well as so specific that it can’t be ignored. There’s some interesting commentary in how the future may or may not adapt for those less well-equipped to navigate it, but again, it’s played as an accessory.

In other words: there’s nothing in the plot that justifies the existence of everything around it. This is a problem exacerbated by the way that Mute is structured as a sort of two-hander, with Leo on one side and Cactus (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux), a pair of bantering black market surgeons, on the other. Skarsgård is a terrific and perpetually underrated actor, and does great work here, especially given the fact that he’s been robbed of his voice. But the degree to which his performance must by nature be understated only makes it easier for Rudd and Theroux to run circles around him. The moral compass of the film, however, is too rigid to allow for that to persist, which would be fine if not for the fact that the righting of the scales is done so clumsily.

The way that the film treats sex is also undeniably strange, as it swings between treating the fluidity of gender and sexual preference as no big deal to playing it as a joke, and portrays sex work as a “dirty,” degrading profession. At the risk of spoilers, there’s even a subplot about pedophilia. Like every other point that the film introduces, it’s easy to see what’s intended—this character is a villain—but the steps from A to B, which include instances of voyeurism that unfortunately extend to the filmmaking by proxy, are too simplistic for such a horrible topic, and fail to reckon with it in any meaningful way. It’s used for what feels like cheap shock value, and while surface-level engagement is passable, if not ideal, for the rest of the plot points that the film introduces and then abandons, it’s unacceptable here.

The little glimpses of the superb Moon’s Sam Bell (played once again by Sam Rockwell) feel bittersweet as such. That film managed to explore themes as broad and universal as identity and isolation despite how simple it was, and perhaps Mute could have done the same if it, too, had been pared down. Or perhaps it could have reached the delirious heights of movies like Jupiter Ascending or Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets if each idea presented had been expanded or at least justified, and the aesthetics had leaned fully into the cartoonishness of Rudd and Theroux’s costumes and gooey blocks of color instead of the Blade Runner formula.

It’s the idea of the latter that keeps me thinking about Mute. While I recognize that fascination with the hypotheticals does not a fully-realized film make, maybe it’s the imprint left by Jones’s ambition that makes it impossible to find the film entirely disposable. It helps, of course, that bits and pieces of it are exquisite. It’s a passion project to the extreme; a movie that contains an idea that’s been gestating for years, and has now arrived without any alteration or polish. It probably could have used some. Perhaps Jones’ third feature (he has referred to Moon and Mute as the first two parts of a trilogy) will find a happy middle, or rather, some extreme, instead of languishing in half-ideas and no answer to the question of “why.”