Sundance: “Thoroughbreds” and “Bad Education” director Cory Finley makes his first misstep with this airless satire about alien capitalism.
Cory Finley’s extremely welcome mission to make every conceivable kind of high school movie — at a time when few other serious filmmakers are bothering to make any kind of high school movie — continues with the young director’s third feature and first misstep. Like “Thoroughbreds” and “Bad Education” before it, “Landscape with Invisible Hand” leverages the ecology of American teenagedom into a satirical and/or breathtakingly sad class comedy that explores the value of empathy in capitalism. Unlike either of those two films, it’s full of slimy little aliens who look like a frozen supermarket turkey made out of tongue.
They’re called the Vuvv (rhymes with “love,” not “Clicquot”), and by the time this story begins in 2036, these squat pink colonizers have been holding Earth’s economy hostage for more than five years. They didn’t take over the planet by blowing up the White House or terrorizing major cities with Tripods, they simply disrupted the tech sector with enough out-of-this-world gadgetry until the human race was forced to buy into the Vuvv’s cold vision of the future or preserve their remaining dignity below the poverty line.
“This is a great time for entrepreneurs!” says one of the Bret Baier-looking bootlickers who anchors the Vuvv equivalent of Fox News. If his nauseating catchphrase proves typical of an airless film in which the satire is often too blunt to be funny and the drama too contrived to be poignant, it also tees up the film’s increasingly compassionate interest in probing the human species’ hierarchy of needs. Food and shelter come first, but not everybody wants to be an entrepreneur — not everybody wants to abandon the analog joys of being alive just because they might get to share a small piece of the profits.
Budding young artist Adam Campbell (Asante Blackk) was raised by a currently absent father who chose the latter, and our downtrodden but still defiant hero would love to carry on that legacy if he can afford it. But he can’t. His mom (Tiffany Haddish) has been unemployed forever, she can’t pay the electricity bill on the family’s crumbling New England home, and shit is getting super depressing at school; borrowing its title from M.T. Anderson’s novel of the same name, and also one of the many paintings that Finley uses to succinctly establish the film’s timeline and backstory, “Landscape with Invisible Hand” opens with Adam’s homeroom teacher shooting himself in the head after the entire profession is rendered obsolete by Vuvv tech.
In this case, that tech is the refrigerator magnet-like node humans wear on their foreheads to receive telepathic signals — and Vuvv history lessons — from their extra-terrestrial overlords. But the nodes can also beam signals back, which Adam and his opportunistic new girlfriend Chloe (Kylie Rogers) take advantage of when they start broadcasting their courtship to a well-paying audience of aliens fascinated by human love.
An extra twist: Adam has invited Chloe, her sullen older brother (Michael Gandolfini), and their dad (Josh Hamilton) to move out of their car and into his mother’s basement. He’s nice like that, and his new boarders seem nice enough, too, but Adam is too young to appreciate how desperation can breed a conditional kindness. While being VuvvTube creators allows the couple to enjoy a taste of the self-determination that wealthier humans used to enjoy, it soon becomes apparent that Chloe is less interested in love than money, which isn’t just a problem for Adam but also for the Vuers back home — these aliens get off on authenticity, and they’ll sue anyone who tries to fake it for the cameras. And they start with Adam and Chloe.
“Landscape with Invisible Hand” hinges on the fact that humans are a remarkably adaptable species at the same time as it keys into the things that we can’t live without. Despite the film’s pointed lack of violence, there’s something both righteous and a little disquieting about how unafraid its characters have become of the unfeeling but hyper-advanced alien race who could theoretically vaporize the entire planet at the push of a button.
The Vuvv themselves are designed for absurdity more than fear (they look like something Kurt Vonnegut might sketch on a restaurant napkin), but there’s a brusque violence to the language they scratch out by rubbing together the Brillo pads at the end of their squiddy tentacle arms — enough so that the second half of the story, in which a Vuvv moves in with Adam’s mom and cosplays as the “man” of the house, is stifled by a too-thick layer of tension. While Haddish’s casting serves as a helpful reminder that this is supposed to be funnier than frightening, the helplessness baked into this sci-fi tale of economic surrender gradually builds into a moribund sense of dread that stifles most of its laughs.
“Landscape with Invisible Hand” calls for a bit less showmanship than either of Finley’s previous efforts, which relied on a remarkable degree of control to mesh contradictory tones into more than the sum of their parts, but the writer-director doesn’t hit upon anything that might offset his missing virtuosity. Here, Finley often seems to be at the mercy of his material’s strangeness. He stages most scenes with a vacuum-sealed flatness, as if unsure how else to focus our attention on what’s sucking the life out of the film’s world, and his cast — who can only stretch their characters’ shared frustration so far — are left with little to do but lean into the anti-drama of intergalactic domination.
Hamilton is the only one who gets to have any fun by pushing back, as the “Eighth Grade” actor subverts his gently paternal screen image by playing Chloe’s dad as the ultimate Elon Musk reply guy, willing to do or wear whatever it takes to be recognized by his new business gods. His character sucks up to the Vuvv with remarkable speed and silliness the millisecond he’s given a chance, his sitcom self-abasement suggesting that “Landscape with Invisible Hand” might have cut deeper as a story about someone resigning themselves to heartless capitalism than as a story about someone looking for a way to resist it on their own time. That’s a story Finley has told before and one that I look forward to watching him tell again in some other form. But it’s hard to buy the socioeconomic power of Adam’s artistic self-becoming in a movie whose director can’t stop the Vuvv from snuffing out what makes his own work special.
“Landscape with Invisible Hand” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. MGM will release it in theaters later this year.