Perhaps I’ve made this comment before, but as a director working your way through the film industry, it surely must at least seem daunting progressively moving from smaller to larger budgets. Not to say that filmmakers getting their start in the independent scene aren’t capable of making the big leap, but with a larger budget comes temptation; temptation to accomplish anything and everything you’ve always wanted to see in a single picture. It’s only natural, and part of being an artist is being true to oneself by first visualizing what you want to see in any given work, worrying about what the general public want to see second.
With this sort of opportunity, however, there must be some restraint, otherwise it’s a bit of the inmates running the asylum. In the latest Netflix original to stink up the catalogue, Duncan Jones’s Mute, the prisoners have escaped and let anarchy reign against all that is common knowledge regarding digestible storytelling. Jones’s career once looked mighty promising, with 2009’s fabulous indie sci-fi drama Moon and 2011’s Source Code, and though a revival isn’t beyond the realm of possibility, two straight duds between this and 2016’s Warcraft doesn’t bode well for a director who had just begun making waves outside of the independent circuit.
Visually speaking, Mute represents many of the best aspects of its chosen setting, the German capital Berlin – easy on the eye, at the cutting edge of modernity and including a diverse array of characters filling its busy streets. Narratively, the film instead signifies any all-but abandoned industrial town occupying the nation’s heartland: sprawling and sparse. It can’t help but feel Jones and Co. employed a majority of their funds and time developing the best possible Blade Runner-esque blend of futuristic modernity and a Communist utilitarian aesthetic at the expense of engaging characters with clear motives and overall structural cohesion, and all that remains is a muddled mess of the bright neon neo-noir it wants to be.
Alexander Skarsgård stars as Leo, a mute bartender consistently described by official synopses as having a violent past, even though we’re given little indication that this is actually a significant component to his character. His girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), waitresses at the same club and mysteriously goes missing after confiding in him that she has some darker secrets that could change how he sees her. Around half of the film tells of Leo’s unwavering search through Berlin’s seedy underground to find her, yet somehow forced into the picture are two American war surgeons, Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux). Cactus Bill wants to leave the city with his daughter Josie, needing fake passports to do so, while Duck is content with his life. These two plotlines converging feels more clumsily pieced together than organically realized, yet their forced dramatic relationship to one another is highly more palatable than the other errors riddling this story.
It’s not even just that the plot is as derivative as it sounds, though it certainly is and could not have been stretched any thinner across a poorly justified two-hour runtime. Well into the second act, you feel as though you’re still waiting for the inciting incident to come; that impetus that kicks the story into high gear, barreling through revelations that seem more impactful than their traditional screenplay checkpoint status might suggest. But then it hits you what Jones and co-writer Michael Robert Johnson considered the inciting incident, and you can’t help but think you’ve been cheated of sincere involvement and subjected to a lack of creativity or planning and lethargic pacing. Even when the story introduces a handful of interesting ideas down the stretch, it cannot cover up the uninspired blandness that overtakes the momentum and steals the moment.
From the pacing to the principal actors bobbing in and out of commitment to the material, poor direction remains in fruitful abundance. Whether it is better to be careless or lazy is a difficult question to answer, but Jones has effectively cornered himself into needing to respond – especially with regards to some poor judgment in handling a certain character who exhibits sexually predatory behavior. Mute is the signifier of a man detached from his objective, and with every visual reference to the fact that this film takes place in the same universe as Moon, that detachment becomes more apparent in the director, as well as grows in the hearts of viewers longing for the days of Moon – or rather, any big-budget sci-fi flick that’s comparatively average.
We’ve had plenty of those and even better in the last few years, though regardless of quality, unless the name Star Wars and subsequent Lucasfilm brand are attached, few see a decent return on the investment made. Just recently, Blade Runner 2049 flopped enormously, Annihilation’s perplexing distribution strategy may work against Paramount’s best wishes and the numbers show that, in general, people did not fall for Netflix and Paramount marketing games with The Cloverfield Paradox. Whether it’s Arrival or the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy, we need to keep supporting big-budget sci-fi when it’s good to help them prop up a genre necessary to filling a void in between the usual spectacle fare nowadays. Mute doesn’t prop up anything; not when it buckles this quickly under its own weight.