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Kristen Stewart and Viggo Mortensen have a moment by a bright window in Crimes of the Future Image: NEON

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The sci-fi story Crimes of the Future puts the king of body horror back in his slimy saddle

Move over, eXistenZ and Videodrome — David Cronenberg has returned to echo his squishiest hits

“Surgery is sex, isn’t it?” That question isn’t the only moment where David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future feels like it’s summing up the filmmaker’s whole squishy, creepy, body-horror deal. But it is the most succinct summary. So it makes sense that the movie returns to similar phrases and ideas as it rolls out its near-future science fiction world. At one point, a character refers to less gory physical expressions of lust as “the old sex” — which not only shrugs off the entire past history of physical bodies but also sounds like a riff on the “new flesh” extolled in Cronenberg’s 1983 sci-fi horror nightmare Videodrome.

Yet for a movie in which characters who aren’t doctors repeatedly perform surgery on each other, sometimes for art’s sake, Crimes of the Future doesn’t feel as confrontational as past Cronenberg provocations, like 1996’s Crash. (That’s the one about people who consider vehicular accidents sexy, not the Oscar-winning racism mess.) At times, it’s downright weary.

Set in an unspecified future when humankind has begun to evolve away from feeling pain, the movie follows performance-artist couple Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Léa Seydoux), whose work features an unusual double act of “desktop surgery.” Saul grows new organs, which Caprice tattoos and then removes in front of an audience, using a fleshy, rubbery, extremely Cronenbergian control panel that controls bony, extremely Cronenbergian surgical instruments. Are Saul’s growths advantageous or harmful? Without traditional pain, it’s hard to tell — though in spite of his ability to withstand repeated surgeries, Saul doesn’t exactly look comfortable. He appears to hover somewhere between ennui and agony.

Léa Seydoux eyes Kristen Stewart viciously as Viggo Mortensen lies between them in an Assassin’s Creed-style cape and hood in Crimes of the Future Photo: Nikos Nikolopoulos/NEON

Saul and Caprice’s act attracts the attention of Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart) from a semi-hush-hush organization called the National Organ Registry. But the couple’s motivations, and especially their actual wants or needs, are often opaque. There’s also a vague mystery about a child’s digestive system; in the memorable opening sequence, a young boy named Brecken (Sozos Sotiris) munches contentedly on a plastic wastebasket, as if suffering from a turbo-charged case of pica. His mother is horrified, regarding him as a monster. Though it isn’t clear at the opening, Brecken may have reached a logical endpoint of the same syndrome that’s affecting Saul and others.

That evolution is mirrored by the movie itself, which seems more interested in taking its director’s pet ideas to a grimly logical endpoint than in orchestrating a grand climax (so to speak). Crimes of the Future often feels designed to kick off, or possibly finish off, a late period for the director. Maybe that’s because of how long it’s been since a Cronenberg film leaned this hard into his trademarks.

There are discomfiting moments, horrific moments, and even some flashes of gnarliness in his relatively recent movies, like Maps to the Stars and Cosmopolis (both with Stewart’s Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson; Taylor Lautner must be doing kick-flips as he waits by the phone.) But Crimes is Cronenberg’s first full-on sci-fi/horror movie since 1999’s playful gaming odyssey eXistenZ. His return to genre territory is both more extreme and less. eXistenZ is a more user-friendly trip for the squeamish, but in spite of Crimes’ explicitly surgical moments, it’s a more contemplative, sometimes recessive film. You could even call it a mood piece.

If that sounds like an expectations-lowering warning, well, it’s true that there isn’t much forward momentum. Mortensen, so electric in Cronenberg’s crime dramas Eastern Promises and A History of Violence, is more stylized here. When he isn’t lying prone and half-dressed on an operating table, he skulks around dressed like he’s about to jump into Assassin’s Creed. He looks a bit like Ed Harris, and he sounds a bit like George C. Scott. All together, the affectations create distance from the audience.

Seriously, Viggo Mortensen more or less in Assassin’s Creed cosplay in Crimes of the Future Photo: Nikos Nikolopoulos/NEON

The film’s women feel more open and intimate in their gestures. Seydoux brings a sense of downcast glamour to the bizarre artistic relationship at the movie’s center, while Stewart, as the investigator who becomes enamored with Saul’s surgical art, heightens her hurried speaking style to a staccato excitability.

The movie gets livelier every time Stewart appears, as if on a contact high from her intoxication. Crimes of the Future needs those extra jolts of weirded-out star power. In spite of its arresting imagery, it’s sometimes more engaging to think about than to actually watch. The movie was first conceived in the early 2000s. (In 1970, Cronenberg released a shorter movie with the same title and an entirely different story.) Its moments of prescience, about the simultaneous fragility and flexibility of the human body and an increasingly desperate search for sensation in an evolving world, mingle with a musty scent. It’s set mostly on soundstage-y interiors, constricting the rich, borderline-noirish shadows and colors.

That’s probably intentional — or at least it’s how Cronenberg turns a limited budget into a thematic style. It’s also admirable; even when Cronenberg seems to be playing another iteration on his past weird, pulsating hits, he knows the world keeps changing. Shocks wear off, pain dulls, and people keep evolving. Cronenberg does too, and one of the best things about Crimes of the Future is that it makes it even more difficult to predict where he’ll be poking around next.

Crimes of the Future premieres in theaters June 3.