An Ambitious But Unfortunate Failure From Filmmaker Cory Finley [Sundance]

Feb 11, 2023

Cory Finley burst out of the cinematic gate, like many a playwright-turned-filmmaker before him, with a voice firmly in place. In his debut film “Thoroughbreds” and its follow-up “Bad Education,” he precisely, skillfully, and mercilessly created characters who were, for the most part, amoral monsters—but who you kinda-sorta rooted for anyway because they did what they did so wittily and unapologetically. 
Of course, that kind of thing can turn into a rut mighty quickly (ask another playwright-turned-Sundance-darling, Neil LaBute), so perhaps it’s understandable that Finley wanted to do something completely different for his third effort, and found that something in M.T. Anderson’s 2017 sci-fi novel “Landscape with Invisible Hand.” The resultant film is certainly a departure for Finley, primarily in that it’s not terribly good.
The setup, however, is promising. Like the similarly not-quite-successful “The Pod Generation,” it’s a not-too-distant-future story, set in 2038, five years after the alien invasion. But it’s benignly called “first contact,” and the film’s single deftest touch may be that the “Vuvv” aliens were allowed to take over the planet by the government and big business (the picture is thankfully cynical about both), who saw “opportunities for wealth creation” therein. So, unemployment is sky high but so is alien wealth, and earth kids are learning “Vuvv culture and history” in school from the alien holograms that have replaced teachers. “I have been underbid by the little boxes on your foreheads,” notes a departing English lit instructor, who blows his brains all over the school sign at the end of his last day.
Our hero is Adam Costello (Asante Blackk), a teenage artist and one of two kids left in the care of their mother (Tiffany Haddish) by their father (William Jackson Harper) shortly after first contact. They’re having a rough go of all the social and economic hardship; “I look around the world now and less and less of it seems like a place where a person would want to be,” notes Adam’s sister Nettie (Brooklynn MacKinzie). Adam sees a bit of sunshine in the form of his new classmate, Chloe (Kylie Rogers), and they develop a sweet little romance, an escape from this sad and desperate little world, which they decide to monetize so they can feed their families. 
You see, the Vuvv have no understanding of romance or love or the workings of the human heart, so they pay humans for “courtship broadcasts” and pay by the view. Adam and Chloe’s broadcast is a quick success, which leads to quick conflict. “I just want to know that you want to spend time with me when no one’s watching,” Adam finally admits, and Chloe isn’t exactly sure of that, and then the conflict spreads to their families as well, and then they’re sued by the Vuvv for deceptive programming because they’re supposed to be in love and they aren’t. 
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It’s all very silly, but the opening sections have a nice, loopy energy, and the specifics of this new version of our awful world ring rather painfully true. Yet, once Finley sets the table, the pace goes all out of whack; the picture drags when it should punch, and slows when it needs to speed. This holds particularly true when the gloopy, odd-looking alien creatures (“gooey coffee tables,” as one character accurately dubs them) are introduced, which sends things down the tubes pretty quickly. The sheer mechanics of the creature effects—how long it takes them to “speak,” and then for their slaps and whooshes and clicks to translate into English—are so cumbersome, they just stop every scene cold. It’s like putting mud in the movie’s boots.
On top of all that, there’s a curious shortage of honest-to-goodness laughs in Finley’s script; the humor is strained, and it doesn’t really land as science-fiction either. The initial conceits aside, the commentary is broad and clumsy, up to and including a scene of characters simply watching the news and commenting on the story’s stand-ins for contemporary protest movements. Later, an alien joins the household, watches old sitcoms and educational films, and declares, “OUR HOME SHOULD REPLICATE THIS”; when he finally ventures outdoors, he complains, “THE STREETS DO NOT RESEMBLE THE ONES I SEE ON THE SCREENBOX.” Oh, you mean television doesn’t reflect the realities of life in America? Wow, what a trenchant insight!
All is not lost here, to be clear. The score, full of “Star Trek”-style trills, is genuinely hilarious, and the same can be said of many of the performers. Haddish is asked, too often, to do her familiar schtick when the script fails her, but there’s a shot of her walking down the aisle (don’t ask) that brings the house down. Michael Gandolfini, almost unrecognizable in a big, bushy beard, is very funny and very bitter as Chloe’s brother, and as her father, Josh Hamilton initially works his rumpled, likable “Eighth Grade” vibe before cleverly subverting it.
But “Landscape with Invisible Hand” is, at best, an ambitious failure. Finley’s first films were notable for their prickly, tart dialogue and a firm sense of characterization—he wrote and directed movies that were interested in people, in their motivations and contradictions and the terrible things they were willing to do to each other (and themselves). Here, working on a larger canvas with the concerns of genre and special effects, he just seems lost. [C]
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