Got an old screenplay in your bottom drawer that’s been rejected by practically everyone in town? Now’s your chance: Netflix seems to be greenlighting second-rate “content” like cinema was going out of style (and if the company’s stream-at-home strategy succeeds, it just might). The latest beneficiary is “Moon” director Duncan Jones, who dusted off a 15-year-old idea, attached a few name actors, and delivered the latest disappointing Netflix Original with alliterative “Mute,” an over-designed but otherwise uninspired slice of sci-fi noir — a stock missing-persons mystery in which a wordless bartender goes searching for his girlfriend through the sketchy near-future Berlin underworld.
It’s an old trope, but movies in which characters are defined by the fact that they don’t speak almost inevitably lead to scenes in which they finally say something (à la Paul Dano’s long-repressed F-bomb in “Little Miss Sunshine”). “Mute” opens with a badly injured boy floating in a lake, bleeding from half a dozen deep gashes to his neck — the result of a gruesome run-in with a motorboat propeller.
Young Leo is Amish, and though he’s rushed to the hospital in time to save his voice, his parents decline the operation. And so he grows up a freak — although it’s odd to feel that way toward anyone played by Alexander Skarsgård, who’s too darn handsome to be an outcast, and whose dopey relationship with blue-haired cocktail waitress Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh) seems to lack a lot more than just words.
To be honest, Leo’s Amish identity is a far more interesting characteristic than his voicelessness, especially in a movie that appears to have lifted its gorgeous, neon-lit future-noir aesthetic from “Blade Runner.” Here’s a man who seems to have stepped from another time — tall, blond, and awkward, dressed in coarse, hand-sewn suits, who sketches and whittles in his spare time — against an ultra-modern cityscape, trying to navigate his technology-averse traditions amid so many holographic signs, flying cars, and voice-controlled vending machines. (The most intriguing touch is an old-fashioned flat-screen TV, on which Sam Rockwell makes an amusing cameo as his “Moon” character — accompanied by a dozen or so clones.)
Production designer Gavin Boquet, the MVP and master world-builder of the three “Star Wars” prequels, has crafted an eye-tickling upgrade on modern-day Berlin (visually, one of Europe’s least interesting capitals, whose delights tends to be hidden underground and in dark corners), and yet, despite his many imaginative embellishments, we’ve seen cities like this countless times on screen. What we’ve never witnessed is how a Luddite (or “tech-tard,” in the film’s crude parlance) copes with such innovation, setting up intriguing vignettes in which Leo learns to drive a car, uses a smartphone, and takes his first selfie — as well as action scenes in which he fights with a hand-carved bedpost (probably against his religion, but a nice alternative to shooting laser blasters, or however desperate boyfriends usually manage their frustration in movies like this).
One night, Naadirah comes home with something to tell Leo. No, she’s not leaving him, she assures him. “Then nothing else is important,” he writes in a notebook (his principal way of communicating). She makes him tea, they have weird sex in his garage, and then she leaves him. Without dialogue to reveal the type of man he might be, nothing in the “Mute” screenplay (which Jones co-wrote with Michael Robert Johnson) suggests that Leo is especially bright, resourceful, or in any way equipped for detective work. And yet, he single-mindedly blunders forth, like Donkey Kong in search of his princess.
By contrast, Naadirah immediately appears to be a fascinating character, full of secrets and internal conflict, though she disappears almost as quickly, leaving a handful of abrasive, unfunny sketch-balls to do most of the talking in “Mute.” Top of the foul-mouthed list are two off-putting American ex-military surgeons known as Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd, super-scuzzy in Hawaiian shirts and horseshoe ’stache) and Duck (Justin Theroux), who run shady operations on the side. Naadirah’s boss Maksim (Gilbert Owuor) seems to have his fingers in all kinds of black-market dealings, while punky, pan-sexual co-worker Luba (Robert Sheehan) moonlights as an escort in Berlin’s least kinky bordello — so tame that Cactus regularly drops his daughter there to be babysat.
Prodded along by a series of text messages from his new phone, Leo seems thunderingly dense about what happened to Naadirah, although “Mute” makes a grievous error in its choice of actors to play the villain, making the film’s climactic stretch a deeply unpleasant experience for everyone — the audience, the hero, and, above all, the bad guy, who suffers perhaps the most sadistic comeuppance of any villain in recent memory (of which a traumatic blow to his vocal chords is just the beginning). As if that’s not twisted enough, the movie serves up an unseemly pedophilic subplot before finally giving Leo a chance to break his silence.
What is Jones trying to say with “Mute”? One would hardly guess this over-congested generic exercise came from the same mind as the elegant, almost minimalistic “Moon,” which made far better use of all that went unsaid (although repeat collaborator Clint Mansell deserves a special mention for a terrific score that incorporates echoes of Berlin’s rich cultural past into its electro-futuristic soundscape). As if intending to untangle its many mixed messages, “Mute” ends with a dedication to the director’s recently deceased father, David Jones (better known to the world as David Bowie), and nanny, Marion Skene, although its feelings on the subject of parenthood seem deeply conflicted, at best. And yet, Netflix has given Jones the resources to express himself. If only he had done the same for his characters.