by Raj Ranade
“Long live the new flesh!” proclaims the lead of David Cronenberg’s 1983 film Videodrome, a sci-fi horror freakout that was remarkably prescient about the virtual world that would develop years after its release. Though it spoke a visual language of cathode-ray tubes and VHS tapes, Videodrome posited a sci-fi world where high-minded tech gurus encourage you to transfer your life into virtual networks, a “new flesh” which would have very real consequences for the obsolete old kind. This being a sci-fi horror freakout, those consequences were metaphorically represented by people bursting into gooey chunks and orifices appearing in places they shouldn’t be. 29 years later, Cronenberg has returned to the topic with a more restrained approach that nevertheless has a way of burrowing under your skin. Cosmopolis, the story of how a Wall Street man’s life disintegrates over one gridlocked New York day, updates the concept to echo the modern zeitgeist, and in doing captures something essential about The Way We Live Now (TM), the conflict between the streamlined precision of the new data-driven world and the messy imperfections of our all-too-human psyches.
Our protagonist is Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson, whose detached blankness as an actor turns out to be perfect for this role), a currency trader who has made a bad bet on the price of the yuan and stands to lose his entire financial empire because of it. But rather than scrambling to cut his losses, he sets off in his limo on a quixotic mission to get a haircut across town, despite the fact that the traffic “speaks in quarter-inches” (the film is adapted from Don DeLillo’s novel, and its dialogue – knotty, clever, densely packed with meaning – is mostly from the book verbatim). We spend most of the film trapped with him in the limo as he makes his journey, joined in the vehicle occasionally by advisers, employees, and lovers for extended conversations as his situation gets progressively worse. It’s a claustrophobic, rigorously structured work that forces the viewer to view it from a Brechtian distance – that DeLillo dialogue and the mostly deadpan performances make this a work where the key engagement is intellectual more than emotional or visceral, at least until the film draws towards its inevitable ending. That’s not to say that there aren’t sensory pleasures here. Cronenberg gets more cinematic spark out of the car’s interiors that you might expect – watch the way that Cronenberg’s cinematography seems to make the size of the car shift in conjunction with Packer’s fortunes, the layering of screens within screens, the fusion of streamlined metal with organic curves.
Outside the limo, the masses are rioting with Occupy-style verve – their central tactic is to pelt one-percenters with dead rats – but if Cronenberg casts a satirical eye on Packer’s lifestyle excesses (he tries at one point to buy the entire Rothko Chapel and put it in his apartment), he’s also not creating an anti-capitalist screed here. It’s more a film about the limitations of the mathematically modeled world. Packer is a master of information – one of the film’s signature shots has him slumped in his leather-laden backseat, tossing peanuts into his mouth with one hand and manipulating financial charts with the other, as if the latter were no more difficult than the former. But it’s the random messiness of the world, the inexorable entropy, that plagues him, the things that “don’t chart”, as his advisors say. It’s the fact that, as a future-capitalist prophet (Samantha Morton) describes, “money is talking to itself”, and how the systems that Packer and his ilk created have started to take on a mind of their own (not unlike the computerized micro-trading catastrophes of recent years) . It’s the way that the disheveled carnality of one casual conquest (Juliette Binoche, a standout here) makes him barely want to touch her during sex, while he yearns for his icy new wife, a model of orderly feminine purity, who herself refuses to touch him.
But most of all, it’s the irrational, unjustifiable urges that he finds within himself that lead to his downfall – the need to revisit the familiar comforts of a childhood barbershop, to feel something outside of his sheltered existence even if it is excruciating pain, to engage in self-destructive behavior for no good reason at all. It all climaxes in a barnburner of a confrontation with a psychotic man (Paul Giamatti) that is an Eric Packer from a past generation, until the world of the new flesh outpaced him as well. “I wanted you to save me,” he says to the whiz kid who overcame so many obstacles that defeated his predecessors, but it turns out that no amount of number-crunching is going to save them from certain constants of the human condition.