One makes a late-winter trip to the Sundance Film Festival for many reasons, chief among which is the promise of a front-row seat to confident debuts like Corey Finley’s delightfully dark “Thoroughbreds.” Indeed, the playwright-filmmaker showed himself an original voice with his first cinematic outing in 2017, proving his promise with the equally sophisticated “Bad Education,” about a real-life public school embezzlement scandal.
Marking Finley’s homecoming at Sundance, “Landscape with the Invisible Hand” feels less like a return for the writer-director and more like a swing-for-the-fence departure with mixed results. On the one hand, this impressively sweeping sci-fi/satire blend with some old-school visual craft signals Finley’s natural knack for pulling off big Hollywood productions, the largest-scale project of his still-evolving career. Refreshingly, “Landscape of the Invisible Hand” looks and feels like a big-screen experience, complete with spaceships and creatively designed dystopian locales, an increasingly rare achievement these days for young filmmakers working outside of established franchises. On the other hand, it desperately misses Finley’s biting wit and X-acto-sharp perspective on complex and deeply flawed characters.
Adapting MT Anderson’s 2017 book, the writer-director sets the scene promisingly, introducing us to a near-future world in the 2030s following “First Contact” (a pun, emphasized by our overlords, for the Vuvv attack, whereby humanity has willingly surrendered to a super-intelligent alien species. These technologically advanced pink-colored creatures—like squishy pink molars the size of a foot—are not necessarily violent. But they are aggressively demanding human life, claiming both an uninformed government of evil policymakers and anyone’s imagination. can, the familiar greedy tech billionaire-types are skillfully diverting wealth. The economic result of this new order is a dismal one: the rich seem to have secured well-heeled positions to serve Vuvv and have migrated to sprawling cities, leaving the less privileged behind. Cast a literal shadow over.
Finlay gives us an early taste of this new social contract when an Earth-bound girl yells, “Park somewhere else!” One of these floating communities floats across the sky above his home. She is Nettie (Brooklyn McKenzie), tending to her makeshift garden with her teenage brother Adam (Anante Black, in an expressive performance), an amateur artist and the story’s central figure. Raised by two siblings by their single mother (Tiffany Haddish), a former lawyer is barely a once-middle-class man, quickly losing his job to Vuvv technology. (In a poignant opening scene, the tragic end of a newly fired teacher represents how dire everything is for working people.)
Finlay loses his perfect handle on the material, allowing the story’s more mundane ideas to dictate its direction in ways that are both surprising and a little rough around the edges. Thematic boxes about class, race, capitalism, and environmental concerns are liberally but shallowly checked throughout “Landscape,” sharpened a bit after a homeless family moves in with Adam’s relatively fortunate family who can at least afford a roof over their heads and unpalatable imitation food blocks. . – Vuvv-generated maintenance for the poor.
The newcomers are Adam’s scruffy classmate, Chloe (Kylie Rogers), who spends her days scavenging salable goods dropped from sky cities, as well as his brother (a hilariously annoying Michael Gandolfini) and father (a forgettable Josh Hamilton). Along with a sweet butterflies-in-the-stomach romance between Chloe and Adam, in a classic top-down fashion, tension builds between the two groups. Soon, the pair decide to monetize their budding relationship by broadcasting live for Vuvv, an asexual species who find the entanglements of human love exotically attractive and will pay handsomely to listen to rituals like dating, holding hands, and prom.
The couple’s scheme predictably fails, as a high-profile romance might today over-share via social media. As they begin to fake their waning intimacy, a Vuvv follower sues the family for fraud, a ritual they can only get out of if Haddish’s no-nonsense mother agrees to marry a high-ranking alien who gets a little sitcom-y flavor. want Human life.
If that all sounds too ridiculous, it’s a fun wedding sequence that sees a bridal Haddish next to her Vuvv husband in a traditional wedding ceremony. Like the rest of the humor in “Landscape,” this hilarious scene seems more fun in concept than execution, a miscalculation of tone that often mars the rhythm of Finlay’s absurd (but thankfully not cute) ambitions. In fact, nothing about the odd-looking Vuvv draws more than a chuckle or two, while their unique method of communication — shuffling their annoyingly noisy tentacles — feels especially tiresome. A far better comedienne than a dramatic actress, Haddish at least brings some relief to the film’s tedium, earning audience applause (and laughs) as she plays her overbearing yet innocent Vuvv husband who’s the boss.
Elsewhere, the film attempts to make sense of uncertain times through Lyle Vincent’s refined cinematography, Michael Abels’ playful zither score, and Black’s probing performance as an artist. As the story progresses haphazardly, Adam’s paintings provide visual chapter breaks, giving the film a disjointed structure that makes one wonder if the material would have been better served by a shorter series. As a standalone film, “Landscape” lacks substantial world-building, leaning a little too much on the audience’s imagination, while its 101-level commentary could be summed up as a blunt warning against the evils of capitalism.
On that front, Adam’s refusal to commoditize his art makes a statement. Although tempted, he simply won’t sell the most sacred part of his identity. Can the same be called “landscape”? In the end, Finley’s ambitious outing is just that: ambitious, without much to back it up. Still, it’s encouraging to see talented budding directors like Finlay take big gambles. Like an apparently benevolent alien invasion, who’s to say if the human race is ultimately good?