Starring Alexander Skarsgard, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Seyneb Saleh, Robert Sheehan, Mia-Sophie and Lea-Marie Bastin with Dominic Monaghan and Sam Rockwell
Directed by Duncan Jones
Available on Netflix
“Mute” is the latest film from director Duncan Jones. While the film sports a unique premise and a host of impressive visuals; the film ultimately wastes the potential of its format and ends up being a huge missed opportunity that’s a hot mess of a cyberpunk mystery.
The film’s setup is as follows: a man named Leo (Alexander Skarsgard) resides in a near-future setting of Berlin. He was rendered unable to speak after he was injured in a childhood boating accident, though is still able to have a relationship with a young woman named Nadirah (Seyneb Saleh). One day, Nadirah disappears while Leo is tending bar; and Leo must face the challenges of his infirmity and his disconnect to a futuristic world to venture into the seedy depths of Berlin to find her. Despite the potential of its premise and the use of Netflix as a distribution platform, the film is ultimately in the shadow of films such as last year’s “Blade Runner 2049” and has very little substance to its admittedly stylish world.
Although much has changed about the world since Jones initially conceived the screenplay alongside Michael Robert Johnson in 2002; there is ample opportunity to use the genre to examine a rapidly-changing society. Unfortunately, the execution has the side effect of the script having a surprisingly retrograde worldview. It’s a pity, given how Jones ended up providing unique science fiction with his previous work on the acclaimed films “Moon” and “Source Code.” Even his 2016 adaptation of the popular video game series “Warcraft” ended up being a decent entry in the oft-derided field of video game movies. Yet, despite Jones’ passion as a filmmaker; this project never really gets off the ground to reach the lofty heights it aims for.
The film’s strongest element is easily the visual effects. Netflix reportedly spent $120 million on the production; and it definitely shows. There is a blend of CGI, practical special effects and an overall unique depiction of a near-future Berlin that works to Jones’ strengths as a filmmaker. As the son of late musician David Bowie (who the film is partially-dedicated to the memory of), he has a talent for making even the most common film genres his own.
Still, the film has considerably less strength in its narrative. As the film goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that it lacks an internal logic to its mystery that makes similar films such as the original “Blade Runner” so endearing. The film’s character motivations and the way scenes are structured make it so you never really have any clear idea on what attitude to adopt for each scene. This isn’t helped any further by an admittedly talented cast having inconsistent performances. While Skarsgard puts on an impressive performance despite going the lion’s share of the film’s two-hour runtime without any lines, comedic secondary characters played by Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux feel out of place and tend to further muddle the mood of the scenes they’re in. It doesn’t help they play roles fitting admittedly cartoonish names such as “Cactus Bill” or “Duck Donald.” Their exaggerated performances seem more at home in a Looney Tunes cartoon than a dark cyberpunk mystery.
Yet, it’s often hard to feel too disappointed with the film. Jones clearly is passionate about his story, even if it never truly reaches the same level as his previous work. Clint Mansell’s score, which blends classical music and more modern electronic sounds also helps track Leo’s journey into the seedy underbelly of Berlin. Even so, the story and characters suffer from an identity crisis that the film is ultimately unable to overcome. Much like Leo being torn between honoring his ancestors traditions and embracing the modern world around him, Jones never really finds a balance between following the conventions of its genre or trying to shake up expectations.
On the whole, “Mute” is a film that has ambition and impressive special effects; but ends up being one of the most underwhelming science fiction films of the decade. Despite its lead’s injuries, the story never seems to grasp a simple concept of communication: just because someone cannot speak, it doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to say.