If you’ve been to a post-film-screening Q&A, you know how dreadful they can be. Audience questions are truly lawless — often, they’re not even questions at all — ranging from bizarre interpretations to sycophantic praise. But one audience member at a recent post-screening Q&A actually used his time at the mic wisely. After the Sundance premiere of “Landscape with Invisible Hand,” a man asked the producers and festival programmers if they “found it ironic” to have this film, which is about a young artist who finds himself exploited by the upper crust, debut at an independent film festival, despite its backing from major studios like Annapurna Pictures and MGM.
We can debate all day long about Sundance’s current indie cred, but that man’s question, after that particular screening, is still a valid one. “Landscape with Invisible Hand” is the third feature from writer-director Cory Finley, whose sparkling first feature “Thoroughbreds” tore up Sundance 2017. Based on the novel by M.T. Anderson, it follows a teenage boy struggling through the economic ruins of an alien invasion. At least, it’s supposed to.
Where Anderson went to great lengths to address some salient topics in his novel — like colonialism, the American healthcare system, and the obsolescence of the working class — Finley’s “Landscape” lacks the worldbuilding necessary to make any such strong connections. This could be a scathing indictment of our country’s growing class divide. Instead, it’s a nice-looking, entertaining movie that conveniently pulls its punches.
Our protagonist is Adam (Asante Blackk, “When They See Us”), a precocious teenager and prolific painter. Through a series of his paintings, we learn that it is 2036 and an alien invasion has occurred, causing rampant joblessness. Most Americans have been left to flounder down on earth, while the upper crust cruises by in giant complexes that float a few hundred feet above them. These complexes center around the Vuvv, the aforementioned alien invaders, who look like blocks of Hubba Bubba with legs. Vuvv tech has rendered most jobs obsolete, so if a human wants to get a good paycheck, servitude is the only option.
Well, almost. When Adam meets Chloe (Kylie Rogers, “The Whispers,” “Yellowstone”), a new girl at his school, and discovers her family is homeless, he invites them to move into his basement. His mother (Tiffany Haddish), warily agrees. Adam and Chloe quickly develop a romance, which Chloe suggests they broadcast to the Vuvv, who are fascinated by the concept of human love and will pay to see it. Shockingly, the monetization of their budding romance does not pan out well, leaving Adam in even direr financial straits.
There are basic things missing from Finley’s rendering that leave it hollow. Vague references to Vuvv technology do little to demonstrate who has lost their jobs and why. In the novel, the rapid integration of AI explicitly makes laborers and service workers redundant. Though Adam’s kitchen is littered with bottled of water labeled “NOT DRINKING,” there is no mention of the non-potable water or its potential health effects. In the novel, Adam is one of many sufferers from a gastrointestinal disease because the Vuvv decide to forego water treatment. He struggles with explosive diarrhea and, towards the end of the book, nearly succumbs to sepsis.
Finley’s Adam is squeaky-clean, at least on the outside. He and Chloe both suffer from chronic ennui, like any good Finley teen. Their homeroom teacher blows his brains out early on in the film, and Adam and Chloe just stare as emergency workers cover up his body.
“This sort of thing is getting way too common,” Chloe deadpans.
If you’re hoping that such a dramatic early scene portents more dark wit to come, abandon all hope. Instead of working with Anderson’s already ambitious original text and its many meaty themes, Finley rewrites “Landscape” into a half-baked, overstuffed statement on everything and nothing at all. The film attempts to tackle race, class, and gender roles; comedy and drama. This is perhaps so that Tiffany Haddish — who only adds to the film’s uneven tone — can have a more substantial role.
Though “Landscape” purports to take place in 2036, its setting feels confused. Nobody uses cell phones. The TVs are programmed to basic cable, and the programs are strictly old sitcoms. Adam’s family has a landline and a desktop computer. Though it doesn’t seem like Adam lives in a particularly conservative area, his homecoming dance shows a gym full of straight couples. (Perhaps teenagers will change drastically in the next 13 years?) These all may be deliberate products of Vuvv domination, but since Finley does nothing to explain them as such, they feel more like anachronistic affectations.
The most cogent question here, perhaps, is how low Adam and his mother are willing to stoop to salvage their finances. For Adam, that struggle is explicitly creative — he is a genius artist, and the Vuvv have taken notice. His paintings, rendered exquisitely by artist William Downs, are the film’s greatest asset. Blackk as Adam is also irresistible, his long-lashed eyes and small frame betraying his youth as he harnesses the unearned wisdom of a teenager. William Jackson Harper (“The Good Place”) shines in a surprise cameo role. He can make you tear up with just one line delivery.
But all that talent can’t save this unmoored script, which prefers weak visual jokes and playing it safe to a grittier exploration of class. While it seems every prestige movie is down to eat the rich these days, few are willing to really season their dishes, offering underdeveloped working class heroes or cartoony villains. “Landscape with Invisible Hand” is another such disappointment, a money pit of virtue signaling that chiefly highlights its makers’ myopia.