One travels to the Sundance Film Festival in the dead of winter for numerous reasons, chief of them being the promise of a front-row seat to confident debuts like Cory Finley’s delectably dark “Thoroughbreds.” Indeed, the playwright-turned-filmmaker demonstrated 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 embezzling scandal.
Marking Finley’s homecoming to Sundance, “Landscape with Invisible Hand” feels less like a return for the writer-director, and more like a swing-for-the-fences departure with mixed results. On the one hand, this impressively scoped science-fiction/satire blend with some old-school visual craft signals Finley’s natural aptitude for shepherding big Hollywood productions, being the largest scaled project of his still-ascendant career. Refreshingly, “Landscape with Invisible Hand” looks and feels like a big-screen experience complete with spaceships and creatively designed dystopian locales, an increasingly rare accomplishment these days for young filmmakers operating outside of established franchises. On the other hand, it makes one desperately miss Finley’s biting wit and X-Acto-sharp point of view on complicated and deeply imperfect characters.
Adaptating M.T. Anderson’s 2017 book, the writer-director sets up the scene promisingly, introducing us to a near-future world of the 2030s, following “first contact” (a euphemism, insisted upon by our overlords, for the Vuvv invasion, whereby mankind willingly surrendered to the hyper-intelligent alien species. These technologically advanced pinkish creatures — which wackily resemble squishy pink molars the size of footstools — aren’t necessarily violent. But they are aggressively entitled in staking a claim on everyday human life, enabled both by a clueless government of bad policymakers and one would imagine, familiar greedy tech billionaire-types confusing wealth with competence. The economic outcome of this new order is a depressing one: The rich seems to have secured well-heeled positions to serve the Vuvv and migrated to hovering cities, which cast a literal shadow on the less privileged ones who got left behind.
Finley gives us an early taste of this new social contract when an earth-bound girl shouts, “Park somewhere else!” as one of these floating communities drifts across the sky above her home. She is Nettie (Brooklynn MacKinzie), tending to her makeshift garden alongside her teenage brother Adam (Asante Blackk, in an expressive performance), an amateur artist and the story’s central figure. The two siblings are raised by their single mother (Tiffany Haddish), a former lawyer barely scraping by, just like the rest of the once-middle-class humans, rapidly losing their jobs to the Vuvv technology. (In a provocative early scene, a freshly laid off teacher’s grim fate represents just how awful everything is for the hardworking people.)
Finley loses his exacting handle on the material, allowing the story’s more commonplace ideas to dictate its direction in ways both unsurprising and a little rough around the edges. Thematic boxes about class, race, capitalism and environmental anxieties get liberally yet shallowly checked throughout “Landscape,” sharpening somewhat after a homeless family moves in with Adam’s relatively fortunate household who can at least afford a roof above their heads and blocks of unappetizing imitation food — the Vuvv-produced sustenance provided to the poor.
The newcomers are Adam’s scrappy classmate, Chloe (Kylie Rogers), who spends her days scavenging sellable goods discarded from the sky cities, as well as her brother (a hilariously grumpy Michael Gandolfini) and father (a rather forgettable Josh Hamilton). In a classic upstairs-downstairs fashion, tensions brew between the two clans, alongside a sweet butterflies-in-stomach romance between Chloe and Adam. Soon, the duo decides to monetize their budding relationship by broadcasting it live for the Vuvv, an asexual species who find human love entanglements exotically appealing and will pay handsomely to eavesdrop on rituals such as dating, holding hands and prom.
The couple’s scheme predictably fails, the way an influencer romance over-shared via social media might today. When they start faking their dwindling intimacy, a Vuvv follower sues the family for forgery, a pickle they can only get out of if Haddish’s no-nonsense mom agrees to marry a high-ranking alien who wants to get a little taste of sitcom-y human life.
If it all sounds a little too ridiculous, that’s because it is, down to an amusing wedding sequence which sees a bridal Haddish next to her Vuvv husband in a traditional nuptial ceremony. Like the rest of the humor in “Landscape,” this comical scene seems funnier in concept than in execution, a miscalculation of tone that often saddles the rhythm of Finley’s absurdist (but thankfully not cutesy) ambitions. In fact, nothing about the bizarre-looking Vuvv draws more than a chuckle or two, while their unique manner of communicating — by shuffling their annoyingly noisy tentacles — feels especially wearisome. A far better comedienne than a dramatic actress, Haddish at least brings some relief to the film’s tediousness, earning the audience’s goodwill (and laughter) when she shows her overbearing yet harmless Vuvv husband who’s the boss.
Elsewhere, the film rests on the shoulders of Lyle Vincent’s refined cinematography, Michael Abels’ playful zither score and Blackk’s inquisitive performance as an artist trying to make sense of uncertain times through his art. As the story messily advances, Adam’s paintings provide visual chapter breaks, giving the film a segmented structure that makes one wonder if the material could have been better served by a miniseries. In the form of a standalone film, “Landscape” lacks sufficient world-building, leaning a bit too heavily on the audience’s imagination, while its 101-level commentary can be summed up as vague warnings against the evils of capitalism.
On that front, Adam’s refusal to commoditize his art makes a statement. Though tempted, he simply won’t sell out the most sacred part of his identity. Can the same be said of “Landscape”? In the end, Finley’s ambitious outing is just that: ambitious, without much else to back it up. Still, it’s encouraging to see distinctly talented emerging directors like Finley taking big gambles. Like an ostensibly benevolent alien invasion, who’s to say if the human race is better off in the end?