two figures, their eyes whited out and the bottom of their faces obscured by solid opaque black face paint.

Mute: Sci-Fi is a Genre, Not a Setting

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  • Moon was a tense movie that showed glimpses of the brilliance in Duncan Jones. Then Jones made other movies after that. Mute is another low barrier of entry, completely crappy film distributed by Netflix. I’m not sure why Netflix’s strategy with film distribution is to throw their branding onto train wrecks but that seems to be their modus operandi and they’re sticking to it. Nothing about this movie is very good.

    What Mute does do very well is provide the opportunity to discuss “noir,” “neo-noir,” and genre. Genre is a mostly irrelevant set of categories with ill-defined barriers. It’s often irrelevant and most useful in the broadest strokes. Genre is a lot of things but what genre is not, is it’s purely setting.

    In the Mute’s bloated 126 minute runtime we see plenty of setting. Neon flashes across most scenes. Futurey cars blind us with lens flares and some even fly. Robot dancers attempt to scintillate in clubs full of people who have augmented in one way or another. The movie screams how sci-fi it is at every opportunity.

    Strangely, there’s nothing substantively “sci-fi” about the movie. Take away the neon, the flying cars, and the robot strippers and the story is completely unchanged. To call Mute science fiction or neo-noir is to pretend that any fantastical element of the story is consequential in any way. This movie could have taken place in any number of eras with almost zero scriptural changes.

    That’s weird and bad. It doesn’t speak to a “universality” in the movie and instead speaks to a creative team that didn’t spend any time thinking of their setting as anything more than art direction. Instead of using its setting to say something substantive, Mute uses it to dazzle and distract from overall lackluster nature.

    This isn’t new. As Hollywood continues to churn out nostalgia driven films we’re seeing a larger and larger wave of movies that only take place in an era or locale because they look cool. Worse, these films attempt to ameliorate their vapidity by evoking more interesting films. Noir thrillers are cool. Sci-fi is cool. Don’t you remember all of the really cool movies that look and sound like Mute? Mute is just like those…except awful.

    Focusing on art direction isn’t bad. Plenty of directors have made careers focusing mainly on how their films look. The issue with Jones is that it doesn’t matter how his films look. There’s no deeper meaning or thought beyond the cool factor of the near-distant future. Genre is powerful when a film does something interesting with it. Setting is powerful when a film chooses to connect it to its themes. Mute does neither.

    The story of a man searching for his lost love in a city hostile to him is novel. But its not necessary to tell this story in the future and Jones does nothing to connect the futurey, robotic set dressings with the actual story.

    Taken as a whole, Mute is a bad, bordering on offensive film. Some certainly be offended by the depiction of minorities and marginalized people at the hands of the director. On a macro level the film is a broken, shlocky mess that is further sunk by horrific miscasting and characters who are offensive caricatures. But when you try to be impressed by the “cool” factor of the movie its stunning how badly the movie pulls of the one thing it should be able to be lauded for. Duncan Jones has entered a phase of his career that others like Neill Blomkamp have faced before. The phase where we remember the one good movie they did as they continue to search for rock bottom.

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