Despite some promising elements, Mute struggles to explore philosophical questions within a sci-fi setting in a way that feels innovative and fresh.
An original project that filmmaker Duncan Jones has been developing for years, Mute is a sci-fi/Noir flick that takes place in the same universe as Jones’ 2009 film Moon (his feature length directorial debut) but operates largely as a standalone narrative. Moon and Mute share some of the same creative DNA in a thematic sense too, in that both are character-driven movies that attempt to find the humanity within the machine of a futuristic world that’s not so far removed from our own modern reality (in certain ways). Whereas Moon succeeds in blending intriguing sci-fi concepts with an emotionally resonant human story, Mute unfortunately comes up short in both respects. Despite some promising elements, Mute struggles to explore philosophical questions within a sci-fi setting in a way that feels innovative and fresh.
Set in Berlin around the mid-21st century (or “Forty years from today”, as the official synopsis puts it), Mute revolves around Leo Beiler (Alexander Skarsgård): a bartender who has been mute since a childhood accident but has never undergone the available surgical procedure to restore his voice by technological means, due to his strict Amish upbringing. When he’s not working, Leo spends his time with his blue-haired coworker and girlfriend Naadira (Seyneb Saleh), a woman with secrets of her own – secrets that lead to her vanishing one day, leaving Leo to wonder what happened and why she disappeared without saying a word to him first.
Leo thus decides to play amateur detective and track Naadira down on his own, leading him down a path to discovering more about who she is and the life that she led before meeting him. As he carries out his investigation, Leo finds himself again and again crossing paths with a shifty pair of former U.S. military surgeons: Duck Teddington (Justin Theroux) and “Cactus” Bill (Paul Rudd), the latter of which is attempting to secure a passport so that he can leave the country. Is this mere coincidence, or are these shady characters somehow connected to Naadira and her sudden departure?
Reuniting with his Moon cinematographer Gary Shaw, Jones combines real world footage of modern Berlin (where Mute was largely filmed) with neon-lit sets and CGI skyline backdrops to create a setting here that is reminiscent of Blade Runner – a movie that Jones has long acknowledged was a heavy influence on Mute – yet has its own distinctly European pop flavor and tempo. This is further reflected in the costumes by Ruth Myers (The Golden Compass, Legend of Tarzan), which are stylized yet comparatively grounded in their aesthetic and help to not only create a sense of atmosphere in Mute, but also reflect the film’s theme of traditionalism versus futurism. Although Mute‘s mid-range budget shows in both its practical set pieces and computer-animated elements, the film is mostly successful in painting a portrait of futuristic Berlin as a grimy, overcrowded metropolis – one that could indeed conceivably exist within the next forty years.
Where Mute struggles is when it comes to using its Noir-influenced future world to explore meaningful science-fiction issues, and/or weave substantial social and political commentary into the tapestry of its narrative. Although Moon provides some additional context for the state of things in Mute‘s troubled setting, the two films don’t really enrich one another thematically or from a storytelling perspective, making the connection between them all the more flimsy and unnecessary. Jones and his cowriter Michael Robert Johnson (Sherlock Holmes, Pompeii) nod to bigger topics about immigration and class divisions in Mute with their script work, but have trouble combining the film’s Noir mystery narrative throughline (which itself is rather predictable) with sci-fi elements as seamlessly as Jones did in his second film, Source Code.
Mute‘s protagonist Leo is similarly a character whose personal beliefs and (literal) lack of a voice in an increasingly technology-driven world are fascinating and ripe for further examination, but mostly serve as a plot device that impede Leo in his efforts to find out what happened to Naadira, more than anything else. At the same time, the role does play to Skarsgård’s strengths as an actor who specializes in portraying strong and/or silent types, allowing him to flex his acting muscles without the benefit of dialogue to help leave an impression. Skarsgård and Saleh have decent screen chemistry too, bringing a sense of sweetness to the few scenes between Leo and Naadira – though at the end of the day, both Naadira and her romance with Leo are underdeveloped and fail to have much of an emotional impact.
Skarsgård’s buttoned down (muted?) performance as Leo does contrast nicely with the hammier turns from Theroux and Rudd in Mute. The latter actors make for an effectively sleazy pair of surgeons who spend their days cleaning up bullet-riddled goons for those that reign over Berlin’s underbelly, with Rudd’s “Cactus” Bill naturally being the more comedic (though violent) of the duo and Theroux the creepier, more outright unnerving one (not to mention, a sexual predator). Mute devotes a fair amount of its runtime to the characters, fleshing them out and presenting them as foils to the more compassionate and good-natured Leo (and not just in terms of how much they talk, even when not compared to the film’s protagonist). Unfortunately, neither “Cactus” nor Duck are all that compelling or interesting on their own, in spite of the fine performances behind them… and of course, Rudd’s glorious facial hair.
As obvious as the comparison may be, Mute is an uninspired sci-fi/Noir offering that resembles a lower-grade version of the actual Blade Runner sequel that came out last year, Blade Runner 2049. Jones spent several years working on the project, but the final movie result feels like an intriguing concept that he simply wasn’t able to realize as fully as those from his previous character-driven sci-fi features, Moon and Source Code. Mute has a firmer lock on its mythology and world-building that arguably Jones’ Warcraft video game adaptation did, yet like that fantasy adventure the former’s reach ultimately exceeds its grasp. Those who are fans of sci-fi/Noir in general and have already watched season 1 of Netflix’s Altered Carbon might want to give the streaming service’s latest original movie a look, but it’s not a must-see even for those who typically love the sub-genre.
Mute is now available for streaming through Netflix. It is 126 minutes long and is rated TV-MA.
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