By Jack Dignan
For every Netflix original movie along the lines of Mudbound or Okja, two or three Bright’s come with them too. Duncan Jones’ latest sci-fi flick Mute is a film I’ve been impatiently waiting for for a number of years now, refreshing Jones’ twitter on a near-daily basis for a release date. It’s a film over sixteen years in the making. In fact, its origins pre-date that of Moon, his first film and an absolute masterpiece at that. So, the fact that it’s now available to stream on Netflix worldwide is very, very exciting, and goes to show the creative freedom a platform like that has to offer.
In more ways than I’d care to admit, I appreciate and adore Netflix. What they’ve done and what they’re doing is unprecedented. They’re able to give filmmakers a platform when the mainstream refuses to accept them, and as a screenwriter myself, I like that a lot. I like what it offers. The future of cinema, while each day looking more and more home-based, remains very promising. Sadly, in this scenario, Mute, as ambitious and well intentioned as it is, sits more along the lines of Bright and the new Cloverfield than it does Okja or Mudbound.
We follow the story of a man named Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), who, as a young boy, was in an accident that removed his ability to speak. He is, as the title suggests, mute. But we’re now in a neon-lit cyberpunk future, and Leo is working at a bar with his girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). Or at least he was, until Naadirah mysteriously vanishes. With nobody else in his life who he can turn to, Leo takes things into his own hands and searches for his missing girlfriend, leading him down a dark and violent search through the city’s underbelly.
Mute is as ambitious as it is beautiful, even if all the pieces don’t quite align as well as they should. The screenplay, co-written by Jones and Sherlock Holmes writer Michael Robert Johnson, gets off to a tremendous start. After a somewhat underwhelming prologue, we get straight into the action, establishing these characters through clear, precise sequences with fantastic visuals and strong characterization. You really care for Leo and Naadirah’s relationship, while also establishing the set up for her eventual disappearance.
Also thrown into the mix are two characters by the name of Duck (Justin Theroux) and Cactus (Paul Rudd), whose seedy criminal ways seem to continuously tie back into the disappearance of Naadirah. The basic premise is somewhat familiar, but it’s spun in a new direction and aided by a protagonist you genuinely care about. This is, easily, Jones’ more visually striking film to date. It doesn’t reach the same narrative heights as Moon, but from a filmmaking point of view, it’s beyond brilliant. Everything from the colours to the music to the cinematography is sheer eye candy, bringing this intoxicating cyberpunk reality flawlessly to life.
Unfortunately, cool visuals and a decent first act aren’t enough to make this movie work. It was near the end of the second act where the realization started to sink in that “perhaps this film isn’t actually that good.” None of the character motivations make any sense. All of the sub-plots are muddled and irrelevant. The central storyline of a man looking for his missing girlfriend is practically forgotten about for too long a time frame, and we’re forced to sit through repetitive sequences of Duck and Cactus conflicting with one another. The third act tries to tie it all together, but it’s sloppy and a stretch. Plus, the actual reveal of what’s going on doesn’t really add up.
Despite being a plot sixteen years in the making, Jones and Johnson struggle to create narrative coherence. The whole film is hazy and muddled with little to no focus throughout. While the performances are great, and certainly redeem a lot of the shortcomings, they’re simply not enough to make this a worthwhile watch. Still, for Netflix, there’s no harm done here, and for the general viewer, they got it at no additional cost, so it’s impossible to get *that* upset at something so mediocre yet given to us for free.
2 1/2 Stars
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