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Landscape With Invisible Hand Review: ET And Economics

  • The first act offers an intriguing set-up
  • Visually appealing (for the most part)
  • Everything quickly becomes way too unfocused
  • The directorial style works against the comedy

I have not read M.T. Anderson's young adult novel, "Landscape with Invisible Hand." I did like his previous science fiction satire "Feed" when I was a teenager, though. So I was curious to watch the former's movie adaptation, written and directed by Cory Finley ("Thoroughbreds," "Bad Education"), at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It's possible this material works better on the page, written in Anderson's style. But I'm not here to talk about the book — I'm here to talk about the movie. Sadly, I found it to be a bit of a mess and the biggest disappointment of this year's Sundance.

This is the sort of high-profile failure that leads you to wonder how it all went wrong. Finley's a talented director, working with what must be his biggest budget yet: Annapurna Pictures and Plan B Entertainment served as producers on "Landscape with Invisible Hand," and MGM is set to release the film in theaters sometime later this year. The cast is solid, the technical side of things is generally well done, and there are a bunch of ideas with potential here. Perhaps Finley should have picked just one or two of those ideas to focus on, instead of overextending himself in an attempt to make an overarching statement. Or, if he had to include everything but the kitchen sink, maybe he should have taken the film's increasingly ridiculous plot a bit less seriously.

An unfocused attempt at social commentary

The first act of "Landscape with Invisible Hand" is its most intriguing and functional. Here, the serious tone (offset by winks of sarcastic humor) feels balanced with the film's action. A series of paintings made over the years by young artist Adam (Asante Blackk) introduce the audience to what's happened to society: Aliens called the Vuvv have made contact with Earth. Almost everyone has been put out of work by hyper-efficient Vuvv technology; the only good employment is now being in service to the Vuvv. 

Adam's family might have been upper-middle class at one point — his mom (Tiffany Haddish) was a lawyer — but now they're struggling to get by. Chloe (Kylie Rogers) and her family are even worse off, escaping homelessness by living with Adam's family. If a school lesson taught by a cartoon Vuvv tips towards the sillier side of things, the violent scene following it, involving a laid-off human teacher, makes it clear that Finely cares most about conveying a mood of tragic desperation.

Adam and Chloe start making money by livestreaming their romantic relationship for the entertainment of the Vuvv, who are asexual but amused by human mating rituals. At this point, it seems as if the movie's found a vein of humor that fits with its bleakly grounded tone. But things get significantly less grounded when Adam and Chloe get sued by the Vuvv, which leads them on an excursion to the floating ships above the city to meet their alien overlords. The strange design of these creatures is a mix between the butts from "Doom Patrol," Creech from "Monster Trucks," and the homophobic slug from "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker."

The plot then takes another ridiculous turn as it explores teaching aliens the meaning of love via pretend marriage. It even becomes "WandaVision" for a bit, with one of the aliens wanting to imitate '50s sitcoms. This leads to the alien learning misogyny, without really getting what gender is. There's more family drama for both Adam and Chloe, and more class and capitalism commentary. Finally, we reach the didactic ending, in which "Landscape with Invisible Hand" decides its main thesis is about censorship and not selling out the message of your art. That's not even getting into the themes that are crammed into single bits of dialogue, including an environmentalist defense of the Vuvv that's never addressed again and a single allusion to racial issues that feels like a lazy attempt at provocation. It's a lot, and none of it really works as either satire or storytelling.

This material needs wackier filmmaking

"Landscape with Invisible Hand" being all over the place might not have been as much of a problem if its filmmaking were more madcap. With an attitude hewing more towards "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" rather than "Black Mirror," the story's sillier turns could have garnered laughs instead of groans. These actors could definitely have pulled that off: Haddish and William Jackson Harper, who takes on the dull minor role of Adam's absent father, have massive comedic chops. Sadly, they don't get the chance to show them off.

By trying to keep an increasingly ridiculous story tied to a gritty tone, "Landscape with Invisible Hand" deprives its comedy of effectiveness and makes its absurdity feel stupid instead of clever. It's unlikely a story this overstuffed with goofiness could have ever worked as good cinematic drama, where every single twist needs to be stuffed into 100 minutes or less, but it could definitely have been a great farce. Sadly, the film ends up failing on both dramatic and comedic levels. It's heartbreaking to see a story start off with so much potential, only to waste it by the time the conclusion rolls  around.

Release plans for "Landscape with Invisible Hand" have yet to be announced.