“Evolving” is a fitting word to describe playwright turned director Cory Finley, who transitioned to filmmaking with the black comedy Thoroughbreds (2017), adapted from his stage play, followed by the embezzlement crime drama Bad Education (2019). If his first two features suggested an evolution or disinterest in repetition, it wasn’t an aberration.
His third film, the science fiction drama, Landscape with Invisible Hand (2023), adapted from M.T. Anderson’s 2017 Y.A. novel of the same name, was a surprising standout at this year’s Sundance Film Festival – not because of its director’s reputation, but the dense the fest’s programme of promising films, and a strong crop of first-time filmmakers looking to come storming out of the gate. Holding his own, Finley effectively uses science-fiction to not only speculatively gaze into the future but also look back on humanity’s dark and toxic heritage.
Set in America in 2037, Earth has been taken over by The Vuvv. The benefits of economically connecting with intelligent and technologically advanced extraterrestrial species seduced humans into enabling the colonisation of the planet. American literature is no longer taught in schools, and the intervention of the extraterrestrials has not shrunk the wealth gap. Most humans are struggling financially, and those that can afford a home live in fear of losing it. Meanwhile, those who abandon Earth find new careers in servitude to the Vuvv.
Teenage artist Adam (Asante Blackk) invites his love interest Chloe (Kylie Rogers) and her family to stay with him – catching his mother Beth (Tiffany Haddish)and sister Natalie (Brooklynn MacKinzie) unawares. To help with the financial burden, Adam and Chloe concoct a plan to make money from The Vuvv’s fascination with human love by live-streaming their courtship. When their scheme is exposed as disingenuous, Beth makes an uncomfortable compromise to help her son and keep their home.
Why are science-fiction films about contact with extraterrestrial life adversarial? Is it the projection of our shadow complex, of our inherent violence, onto what might lie beyond the stars? Such stories are further proof of our xenophobia towards the “other”. In films like the alien invasion spectacle, Independence Day (Emmerich, 1996), the point of view massages the human ego – the glorification of ourselves through heroic violent resistance. Landscape with Invisible Hand continues this trend of contentious relations with aliens but is more muted, sheltered under the umbrella of thematic-driven sci-fi.
Finley’s Landscape with Invisible Hand speaks about the conscious awareness of art to function as a trojan horse. At a glance, it’s a good yarn, but underneath lies a darker political and cultural sensibility.
Dramatist David Mamet said that drama is not about themes, ideas, or setting, it’s about what the protagonist wants. Finley’s characters want to survive and be independent, and he effortlessly creates a thematic spiral from this starting point.
Witnessing their culture and identity being eradicated, the characters deserve our sympathy, but there’s an unexpected subversive message here. In that regard, Landscape with Invisible Hand is similar to Alfonso Cauron’s dystopian drama, Children of Men (2006), where the happy ending is from the human perspective, not nature’s. It pitches a happy ending, but is it?
Landscape with Invisible Hand is primarily a film about colonialism and its effect on identity. It’s a collage of the intimidation, oppression, and violence that has defined human history, dating back to the ancient world. Colonialisation by the European nations, amongst them the British, French, Spanish, Danes, and Dutch, have lasting implications that are yet to be resolved. In Landscape with Invisible Hand, Adam, Beth, and Chloe are victims, but the discerning audience, for whom the aftermath of colonialism and the violence of the slave trade is their shared history, will find their sympathy offset by condemnation and shame.
Whether intentional, Finley’s Landscape with Invisible Hand is an emotional and intellectual trojan horse – a means to remember humanity’s crimes whilst positioning humanity as victims. This is in stark contrast to the aforementioned arrogance of films such as Independence Day (which I thoroughly enjoyed).
In Landscape with Invisible Hand, capitalism is weaponised, and humanity is out-priced by a more competitive extraterrestrial economy. The film reflects on the dystopian future technology may usher in thanks to a lack of foresight on our part. The colonialisation of Earth in this story, whose human culture and identity are being eradicated, is a metaphor for humans propelling themselves towards not only a technological and economic future but a political and cultural dystopian one.
Finley has crafted a film rich in themes and ideas. He continues to develop these throughout, including satirical commentary on the legacy of gender inequality, using humour to speak the uncomfortable truth of patriarchy. The final theme and idea to develop are how art gives Adam the freedom to speak up, to express not only his feelings but those of others. The Vuvv’s response to his art – acquiring and then changing its context and message to control the narrative ≠ positions Landscape with Invisible Hand as a prism for audiences to perceive themes that define their present reality.
The film effectively uses humour to ground itself in a light-heartedness that has the vibe of its teen fiction source and yet bridges the teenage and adult genres. In the immediacy of the premiere at Sundance, the impression is that Landscape with Invisible Hand‘s effect will mature with time. It will draw connotations as this century unfolds, provoking thoughts about where we’ve come from and the utopian, not the dystopian future, we’re trying to reach.