After debuting with the critical darling Moon, followed up with the thrilling Source Code, director Duncan Jones seemed poised to be the next visionary sci-fi director. Mute, Jones’ latest film, however, is a boring, derivative, and tonally confused mess. For a film stacked with talent both behind and in front of the camera, this Netflix original film has surprisingly few, if any, redeeming qualities.
Alexander Skarsgård stars as Leo, an Amish bartender who cannot speak–think of a poor man’s Ryan Gosling in Drive or Only God Forgives. Apparently, he’s in love with Naadirah, and when she goes missing, he embarks on a noir-tinged journey through a futuristic Berlin. However, we spend so little time with the two that their relationship feels insincere, and her disappearance is underwhelming. Throughout his journey, Leo seems to keep running into Cactus, played by a scene-stealing Paul Rudd, and Duck, played by Justin Theroux in an outrageous wig. Cactus’s backstory of being an AWOL American soldier in Berlin could have lent itself to the film’s futuristic landscape in a more fruitful way, and if given space to breathe, would have produced a more interesting film.
Oh, there’s also a bizarre subplot of Duck being a pedophile. The manner in which this subplot develops is nonsensical and borderline offensive. Jones has spoken openly that he was driven to make this film after the birth of his daughter, and while reflecting on his relationship with his late father David Bowie. Mute may then be Jones’s insight into what it means to be a good man and good father, made more interesting by Bowie’s alleged sexual history with minors. Unfortunately, the film fails to deliver that insight in a coherent fashion.
The cheap, unimaginative cyberpunk aesthetic does the film no favors. Drawing comparisons to the world crafted in Blade Runner, Mute’s version of Berlin in 2050 is derivative and non-descript. If Jones’s aim was to tell a simplistic noir mystery, then he needed to create a world that would leave a lasting impression. That is not the case here, and the futuristic setting adds nothing to an already flimsy story.
Perhaps worst of all, the film teases us with an exponentially more interesting story, that is only briefly shown on a television in the background. In one scene, we see a glimpse of a trial featuring numerous versions of Sam Bell, Sam Rockwell’s main character in Jones’s debut film, Moon. This short sequence is one of the more exciting parts of the film, but ends far too quickly. Why tease such a small, minute detail? Based on his own comments, Jones likely envisioned creating a connected world that he would explore in a future film. Unfortunately, not only is a third film that delves deeper into the infinitely more interesting story of Sam Bell unlikely to be funded, but at this point, it is simply unwanted.
Where do Duncan Jones and Netflix go from here?
Netflix likely isn’t affected because critical success simply does not mean much to their business model. For all their duds like Mute, Bright, and The Cloverfield Paradox (all within three months!), Netflix rewards viewers with films such as Beasts of No Nation, The Meyerowitz Stories, and Mudbound.
Jones, however, is not as lucky. While his last feature, Warcraft, received lukewarm reviews from critics and was considered a box-office disappointment, many ascribed that failure to studio interference and politics. Mute, however, was his self-proclaimed “passion project,” over which he had full creative control. After two middling efforts, Jones has joined the likes of Neill Blomkamp (District 9), who after delivering an epic sci-fi debut, has failed to recapture that magic. It’s not only unfortunate for Jones, but also for audiences, especially in a time when studios cannot afford big-budget, thought-provoking science fiction films to fail. While Netflix may be able to save some of these ambitious projects from complete failure, how long can they really afford to do so?