Ambitiousness is the inspiration of much sci-fi, but without a focused vision it’s easy for these types of stories to aimlessly spin off into the endless directions of their own universe. Mute, the latest film from Duncan Jones (Moon), finds itself excitedly wandering off course into a dazzling future world all too often, full of things to see and say but awkwardly unsure how to speak the words. Though it carefully builds a setting and characters full of intriguing potential, the script can’t contain itself, losing concentration and eventually abandoning carefully constructed mystery for a fountain of neon babbling.
Before succumbing to tangents, Mute starts off quietly and with seeming purpose. Leo (Alexander Skarsgård) lives a simple life as an Amish man living in a Berlin populated by flying cars, drone-delivered meals, and AWOL American soldiers. Despite his aversion to technology and having lost the ability to speak due to a boating accident when he was a boy, Leo is getting by just fine working as a bartender at techno nightclub, dating one of the cocktail waitresses, and finding plenty of time for his quaint artistic hobbies. When his girlfriend vanishes one night without a trace, this formerly mild-mannered Luddite sets out into the seedy underbelly of the city to find his lost love.
Had things stayed this simple, Mute would have had a better chance at fully exploring its themes of parenting and love amid all the dystopia. The setup initially gives off a great tech-noir vibe, offering up a case in need of solving while also implying a relevant statement to make on humanity and the gadget-based wizardry we increasingly surround ourselves with. The influence of Blade Runner is apparent in the production design, confining action to the grungy streets while airborne cars weave through the skyscrapers overhead, loudspeakers occasionally delivering announcements from the local authorities. It’s a slick, filthy world full of perversion and gloom, one where technology functions much the same as it does now — as an escape from reality. How could old-fashioned romance exist here?
Leo’s inability to speak suggests a man who doesn’t fit in this noisy world of hustle and bustle, his plain wool pants, suspenders, and dusky garage/woodshop providing great contrast to the multitude of bright screens and wacky futuristic outfits buzzing about. Skarsgård performs admirably in this role, conveying enough thought through expressive eyes to earn sympathy even though his facial repertoire is a bit too limited to beckon closeness. He looks the part of the keen observer, and as he sets out to unravel the events that disrupted his existence it’s easy to be on his side.
Unfortunately, this fairly uncomplicated beginning quickly surrenders to distraction. More and more characters enter the fray vying for our attention, no matter how inconsequential they are, either delivering contrived plot points (when the script remembers there’s a case to be solved) or existing for the sake of weirdness, as if trying to out-strange inspirations. Meanwhile, the many futuristic visual inventions are given confusing screen time, begging for attention despite their cleverness lending no support to the film’s concepts. It’s obvious Jones has built a rich world in his mind, but his creation may have been too big for its own good. With so much going on, Mute comes across like a season of television crammed into 120 minutes, quickly wanting to tell us about everyone and everything except Leo’s plight, eventually leaving him for vast stretches at a time in order to tell unsatisfying, overdeveloped back stories.
The biggest offender involves the characters of Bill and Donald (Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux), two former military surgeons who now utilize their talents in more nefarious ways, each for their own purpose. Perhaps bored with its detective story, Mute often falls back on these two oafs, continuously slapping them with more arcs like a sculptor throwing clay at a giant lump hoping it will eventually take shape. “Cactus” Bill (because he’s prickly!) and Donald “Duck” (a human cartoon) alternate between moments of comic relief, intense conflict, tenderness, rage, intrigue, bromance, and more motivations than any one person should have to deal with. Rudd and Theroux do their best to juggle the disparate tones and stilted dialog as best they can, but one can’t help but get the sense that they are casting about to find their characters, never centered. The result is a cringe-worthy, forced chemistry that will have many viewers wishing for a return to Leo’s silence — yet they take up so much screen time that audiences might forget there was initially something else going on.
The many threads make a ham-fisted effort to tie together in the end, and though Jones has created a city of a thousand stories, he can’t quite find a reason for this one to take place. Sci-fi is often used to great effect in exploring the vast, infinite aspects of humanity, but can’t go anywhere unless it picks a direction. Without a clear idea of who these people are or what causes them to do the confusing things they do, Mute‘s words ultimately amount to mere chatter, a pretty world dissolved into empty background noise.