Fiction has long imagined humanity’s inevitable first contact with a species from beyond the Earth. Might these visitors be the colonial warlords H.G. Welles imagined as far back as 1897 in his novel The War of the Worlds? Perhaps they’ll be something more like the enigmatic protectors from Villeneuve’s Arrival. As if drawn up on the edge of Occam’s Razor, Landscape with Invisible Hand supposes that our new alien overlords might simply be the galaxy’s most ruthless capitalists.
Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds) adapts — quite liberally — M.T. Anderson’s novel of the same name about a near future in which an alien species, the Vuvv, have made contact and bestowed advanced technology upon the Earth. Our introduction comes in the form of a virtual Vuvv — imagine something like a pig with a crab face and squid tentacles it rubs together to communicate — teacher explaining how wise terrestrial business leaders teamed up with them to bring unending prosperity to the world. This message understandably falls flat to the students looking on from their increasingly dilapidated school, most of them deeply impoverished since first contact 5 years ago.
Economic hardship is a relatively new fact for young artist Adam Campbell (Asante Blackk) and his family. His mom Beth (Tiffany Haddish) was once a prestigious lawyer, but refusal to work under the Vuvv has left her barely making ends meet. Still, the Campbells have a house, by Earth standards they are basically the Bezos or Gates family. When fellow student Chloe Marsh (Kylie Rogers) strikes up a spark with Adam and reveals her family is out on the streets, the Marsh family is invited to occupy the Campbells’ basement.
Adam and Chloe represent the third and fourth rung, respectively, of an economic ladder that connects the levels of Landscape with Invisible Hand. At the top are the cold, unfeeling Vuvv, populating posh cities in the sky. Lacking baser feelings, like love, Vuvv culture is obsessed with the emotionality and ritual of human civilization. Humans live in these floating citadels too, but only the ones who swallowed their dignity and agreed to menial, subservient roles in Vuvv society. Below the human and inhuman elite — literally — live the earthlings who stayed behind alongside all the trash the dropped from the cities above. Most attempts to innovate and claw out of poverty are either bought out by the aliens above or copied to price out human competition. Faced with no other options, Adam and Chloe begin to livestream their budding romance for a paying audience of fascinated Vuvv.
On premise, the satire of Landscape with Invisible Hand is sharply defined. Selling away your intimacy is a powerful premise, reflective of the punishing conditions under regular old earthbound capitalism. Finley broaches similar ideas and visual metaphors to modern classics: the levels of Parasite, Little Women and the economic proposition of romance, an uncomfortable science fiction world akin to any Yorgos Lanthimos picture. Similarities of these kind are more surface level here. Adam, Chloe and their broods navigate a post invasion world with little more than apathy for the space and people around them, jumping from stilted conversation to awkward situation without much room for introspection. Blackk and Rogers are not given much opportunity to actually define their characters’ emotionally but their performances don’t betray much of that internality either.
While a sci-fi satire of this nature is bound to be a bit quirky, Finley’s tonal choices are at odds with one another from scene to scene. Down on Earth serious conversations about oppression, privilege and race are undercut by bone dry delivery. Meanwhile the Vuvv are a physical manifestation of capital oppression yet are played mostly for laughs. Little is seen of the world before they arrived or even of the ways in which they actually maintain their grip on the Earth. Impoverishment is clear all around and little things like unsafe drinking water or cube shaped food make clear that this is not the world of today. Five years under alien occupation and little is changed. Landscape with Invisible Hand struggles to find a balance between being grounded enough to feel genuine or heightened enough drive home the satire.
Still, despite its major flaws, the ideas Finley brings to the table are devastatingly real. If not for the crab faced little monsters taking up so much mental oxygen, presenting a new regime of super-capitalism as essentially exactly what we know now would be brilliant. Adam and Chloe’s maybe real, maybe fabricated romance lights up the first act. Questions about the integrity of a relationship as an enterprise are captivating and reminiscent of much of the reality TV drivel that populates today’s popular culture. In Landscape with Invisible Hand those questions are promptly answered and swiftly swept aside for the next piece of plot meant to skewer capitalism. Much like the tone, Finley could have mined more from a deeper exploration of a narrower idea.
Landscape with Invisible Hand struggles to reach the same depths as Finley’s first two features. Especially next to Bad Education — a far superior look at depravity and greed spurred by the threat of poverty — his follow up feels quite hollow. Despite that, his growth as a visual storyteller continues in an intriguing way. Adam’s paintings serve as chapter introductions and set the tone for what the next few minutes of story will look like. It’s a small touch but these images serve to tether that story back to Adam in a way that the script itself is not always able to. An oppressive score underlines how bleak reality is for the characters even when things are visually brighter. Finley also gets a great deal out of his adult performers. Tiffany Haddish once again shows her tremendous range as a single mother desperate to protect her family without losing their respect. She is both the funniest and most dynamic force in the film. Opposite her is Josh Hamilton as Chloe’s dad, equally desperate to ease the crushing economic weight on his family, although with a comical lack of dignity.
Never able to exceed the sum of its parts, Landscape with Invisible Hand always has its heart in the right place. Sift through the clutter of ideas and something of value is there to be uncovered. Given Finley’s prior work the messiness of his latest is frustrating, feeling more like a missed opportunity than a total whiff. 6/10