Teen Sci-fi Paints a Bleak Picture of an Alien-ruled Near-Future
DIRECTED BY CORY FINLEY/2023
Thirteen or so years from now, humankind’s welcoming of an alien race will result in everything being a thin and obvious metaphor. Obvious metaphors for the here and now! So predicts the ultimately cumbersome and consistently odd (unintentionally and intentionally so) science fiction teen film, Landscape with Invisible Hand. The story presents itself as a fresh if depressive view of humankind’s major adjustment to life following voluntary planetary occupation by a race of emotionless extra-terrestrials. The movie doesn’t quite work, but is darn near salvaged by valiant performances by Asante Blackk, Kylie Rogers, and Tiffany Haddish.
If author M.T. Anderson’s source novel for director and screenwriter Cory Finley’s latest high school-centric film was written in the 1950s, things about it- at least as it’s been adapted to the screen- might resonate with the intended impact. They’d feel eerily prescient for their cautionary cultural foresight, ala work by genre titans of yore such as Bradbury, Matheson, or even Jules Verne.
But no… The book Landscape with Invisible Hand was first published in 2017- a timeframe that introduces a whole different host of questions. Rather than wondering how it had the foresight to address aspects of contemporary racism, classism, the fragility of professional identity, social media, cable news blowhards, et cetra, we instead wonder what happened to all the screens we’ve become so overtaken with. And apparently the current rise of gender fluidity and dating in general made strong reversions. In short, the challenged world of Landscapeis distracting in its omissions, the type that would be a lot more justified if the story had originated way back when. But no…
Years prior to the events of the movie, all of Earth has willingly handed itself over to the benevolent alien overlords known as the Vuvv. The Vuvv look like croaky little spam footstool bricks with flappy flippers that they rub together when they communicate. I suppose this is intended as mild comedy relief. The Vuvv’s advanced technology, cures for our diseases, and labor-reducing system of living proved too good to resist… but in many ways also proved too good to be true. With no need for a vast labor pool, many previously secure Earth families have found themselves rudderless, homeless, and adrift. And when a huge high-class Vuvv platform ship decides to park in the sky over any part of any town, say goodbye to its property value… not to mention sunlight.
Being that all financial solvency is per the whims of the ruling Vuvv, an exploitation economy emerges around their detached voyeuristic fascinations with humanity. Which is where the plot thickens for our main characters, high school students Adam (Blackk) and Chloe (Rogers). Adam is a quiet artist who spends his time painting. (The film is punctuated throughout with his expressive work, and their gallery-ready titles). After Chloe catches his eye, he invites her down and out family to live in his family’s basement. They soon move in to stay, to the veiled chagrin of his lawyer mother, Beth (Haddish, playing it straight as an arrow).
Adam and Chloe begin dating, though for different reasons. Being that “live streaming” unfiltered human experiences to the Vuvv can be lucrative, Chloe is all about maximizing its money-making potential. Once the decision is made to broadcast their budding romance, the relationship quickly becomes a cross between reality television, OnlyFans (but PG rated), and overly pandering YouTubers- and a commentary on all of the above. Things get complicated very quickly as Chloe’s rightwing-leaning father (Josh Hamilton) goes from disapproval to lockstep allegiance with the alien overlords. But when the Vuvv realize that perhaps there were performative aspects in what they were viewing, things get all the more strained for Adam and Chloe. These antennae-eyed aliens may not understand human feelings, but legality they get.
Landscape with Invisible Hand is truly full of ideas, and the points it’s making are spot-on. Within that, though, it’s always tripping over one point to make another. Across all the well-marked plot points, Blackk does a particularly remarkable job of portraying seething teenage stoicism and the soul of an artist in a 100% sexless scenario. It occurred to me that the actor could be the next Black Panther. First though, people have to see him in something… and this film’s title isn’t doing anyone involved any favors. While it remains true to Anderson’s novel in this sense, there’s a reason that films aren’t titled like paintings. Too bad that no one told this to the people at Annapurna and Plan B productions.
It’s certainly no sin for science fiction stories to be driven by metaphor. It is in fact central to the form. The problem here is the way that the film’s ambitious metaphor train eventually suffocates and even thwarts speculative futurism- an arguably more important tenet of science fiction. And director Finley, as accomplished as he’s previously been in the area of high school films (Thoroughbreds; Bad Education), mixes his paint a bit too thick this time, and paints with an awkward, Earthbound rigidity. It adds up to film that is about today but would’ve been positively staggering seventy-five years ago. But now… no.