Netflix’s latest film is the long-gestating Mute, from director Duncan Jones. Like its lead protagonist dutifully doodling sketches into a notepad, Mute tries its best to use impressive visuals to say something–anything–but every time it opens its mouth, there is simply nothing there.
I suppose I should start by discussing some things I liked about the film, and there are quite a few things to like here. Mute is Duncan Jones’ fourth film, with his second and third films being Source Code and Warcraft, respectively. I save his first film for last, of course, because it’s the one that really matters here. Jones’ directorial debut was Moon, which released in 2009 and is amazing; Moon is one of my favorite films. When I say that, what I mean is I recently compiled a list of my 100 favorite films and Moon ranked 33rd on said list. Moon took its relatively small budget of $5 million and created a lived-in, sci-fi thriller for Sam Rockwell to act incredibly well within. The reason this matters, of course, is because Mute acts as a “spiritual sequel” to Moon, complete with Sam Rockwell reprising his role in a cameo appearance. This is the first thing I like about this film, and it is the largest reason I was so excited to see Mute.
Its minor connection to Moon may be its most interesting quality, but it is not the best thing Mute has to offer, thankfully. No, what makes this film worth watching–yes, this is truly the only thing–is its pronounced inspiration from the film Blade Runner. Throughout its development, Duncan Jones made it very clear Mute would be heavily inspired by Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and he was not kidding. Mute‘s Berlin is awash in the same neo-noir retrofuturism of Blade Runner‘s Los Angeles. Stylistically, the film is wonderful. We’re shown a world comprised of a mishmash of technology from various eras: vintage cars and flying vehicles, smartphones and seemingly touchless communication devices, augmented reality games and an old arcade machine. Like the best near-future films, Mute doesn’t so much try to create its own world as much as it places a thin veil of futurism on top of our own; the same retrofuturism pioneered by Blade Runner and, somewhat, Ridley Scott’s earlier film Alien.
People remember Blade Runner for its visuals, and with good reason, but memory often does it a disservice because Blade Runner isn’t just a visual treat. You know what Blade Runner also has? A point. Blade Runner was loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and deals directly with the question of what it means to be human and when androids cross that line. This question was so well constructed that it led to decades of discussion on whether or not Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard is a replicant (an android) in the film. There is such a strong narrative beneath its layers of design. Blade Runner, by the way, was 38th on that list I mentioned.
Mute feels as though it has no point. It begins strong. We meet Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), who has been rendered mute by a childhood accident. Leo is in a relationship with Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), and it’s a nice, if odd, relationship. There are even moments where their scenes together remind me, pleasantly, of Charlie Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill in City Lights. There’s a sort of doe-eyed innocence to the way Jones shoots them; and, obviously, Leo is mute, so that likely plays some part in any resemblance to a silent film. I believe the way Skarsgård plays Leo, however, may be the biggest reason, and that’s not exactly a good thing.
Incidentally, there is another film, fresh on everyone’s mind right now, which has a mute protagonist. It is impossible to watch Mute in February 2018 and not think of the wonderful film The Shape of Water, which is nominated for several awards at next month’s Oscars. Sally Hawkins’ acting in that film is magical; it is through her vulnerability that The Shape of Water sells its most absurd elements. Skarsgård does have nice moments in Mute, and they are not limited to those scenes between Leo and Naadirah; there are some bits and pieces throughout where he moves away from the more histrionic performance reminiscent of Chaplin and into a stone-faced stoicism a la Buster Keaton, but those moments do not come often enough. For too much of the film, Skarsgård is forced to emote through a pencil; he’s not even given the use of sign language.
It doesn’t help, either, that Leo feels less like a fully realized character and more like just another stylistic piece in Jones’ puzzle. The character of Leo, himself, is an anachronism; eschewing technology and stubbornly communicating through notes scribbled on paper. Really, it’s in the character of Leo that the entire film’s problems can be found: stylistically, he is interesting; dramatically, he is hollow.
Beyond the romantic elements within the narrative, which are quite limited, I struggle to find a way to coherently describe just what the hell is happening in this movie. That’s not to say the plot is difficult to follow, because it’s very not. The issue is in how disjointed it all is. There are several characters who seem to all exist in disparate movies. Paul Rudd is great as “Cactus” Bill, and Justin Theroux–who is unrecognizable in his worst Rachel wig–has moments as Donald “Duck” Teddington; Robert Sheehan is terrific as Luba.
All these actors put in the effort, but none of what they’re doing feels connected. There is one relationship, a single one, in the film that feels real and earned and actually seems to develop in some way. This won’t spoil it: Leo interacts with Nicky (Jannis Niewöhner) multiple times, and each time finds each of them in different positions physically and emotionally; the way they interact with each other is not only different each time, but it’s smartly influenced by their history throughout the movie. None of the other various subplots feel that way; they all just feel like distinct subplots that randomly converge after a couple hours–particularly a wholly unnecessary pedophilia subplot that doesn’t seem to serve any real purpose other than filling time.
To say I am disappointed by Mute is probably an understatement, because I did have such high hopes for a loose continuation of the Moon universe with heavier retrofuturistic design, but it ultimately does deliver half of its promise; it is a stylistic wonder. The style? Great. The cinematography? Great. The music? Great. Unfortunately, the influence from Blade Runner seems to have stopped at those things people remember Blade Runner being and didn’t actually progress into what that film actually is. To put this into the simplest of Netflix terms: is Mute better than Bright? Yes, by a multiple of approximately a billion. Is it as good as The Cloverfield Paradox, though? No, not even. If you’re trying to decide on one Netflix original film to watch, right now, it should be The Cloverfield Paradox, and you should like it; if you don’t, you’re wrong. If you’ve got time to watch two, though?