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Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Sundance Review: ‘Landscape with Invisible Hand’ tackles some big ideas, but lacks coherence

Topical and contemporary, 'Landscape with Invisible Hand proves to be an interesting adaptation.

Set in a near-future where an alien species called the Vuvv have made contact, hijacked the most intelligent humans to be high paid lapdogs, then turned Earth into landfill for everyone else – Landscape with Invisible Hand will be a tough sell for any audience.  

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With shades of Elysium and District 9, both Neil Blomkamp films, this allegorical alien invasion movie with a rom-com edge requires viewers to pay attention. Adapted by writer and director Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds) from M.T. Anderson’s novel, it taps into the omnipotent nature of social media, and our cultural obsession with objectification.  

Adam (Asante Blackk) and Chloe (Kylie Rogers) live their lives according to rules laid down by the Vuvv, who are slowly eradicating social frameworks. Teachers are out of a job, schools are being closed down, while life lessons are fed directly to pupils through cerebral sensors. Information not interaction is the underlying focus, as The Vuvv do away with non-essential social constructs.  

What humanity has become in the face of these fundamental changes is entertainment. This alien species, who have handpicked those they deem worthy, to pamper them for exorbitant wages, love to watch people go about their day. Money can be earned for allowing them to observe mating rituals and other interactions, which in turn keeps the lights on. Put simply, think of this like livestreaming for extraterrestrials.  

That himself and Chloe set out to fool the system by making money off the back of this obsession is actually beside the point, even if that might appear to be Finley’s driving force in the beginning. Similarly, when the aliens get wise and sue to get their cash back, and Adam’s mother Beth (Tiffany Haddish) must spend time living with a member of their race to make amends – that also proves to be academic.  

As much as those sub-plots and segues speak to the current cultural drive to earn money through objectification, Landscape with Invisible Hand actually seeks to extol the virtues of creative endeavor. Nowhere more blatantly than in Adam’s retrofitted use of his own school as a concrete canvas. Ironically, that spontaneous piece of artistic expression finds him briefly elevated to a different financial level.  

Suddenly, Adam is adopted by this new race and hailed as a figurehead for galactic change, where this singular piece of art will become the foundation for something far greater. Being offered millions of dollars for an artist in residence role, it would appear Adam’s financial problems are solved, even as his mother continues living with their alien house guest.  

Unfortunately, for anyone watching this for William Jackson Harper (The Good Place), there is some disappointing news. His appearance, impressive as it might be, lasts little more than 15 minutes as he plays Mr. Campbell. However, for some who think this is a nothing role, rest assured the actor makes every moment onscreen count.  

Sharing a brief scene with Adam, which establishes their bond in minutes, Harper expresses regret for disappearing without trace, while his wife is left raising the family. A lot of what must have gone before never gets fully explained, while emphasis shifts back to Adam and Chloe after Mr. Campbell’s departure.  

However, those extremely human moments aside, Landscape with Invisible Hand makes up for some narrative missteps by making some intriguing stylistic choices. Not least of which is the decision to break this film up into chapters, through original piece of artwork. Painted in reality by artist William Downs, this element in particular smacks of Wes Anderson in his Royal Tenenbaums period. Which not only gives this film a whimsy feel at times, but also helps explain this film narrative through another medium. 

That being said, with so many abstract notions coming together, Landscape with Invisible Hand tends to feel incoherent at times. Although the central relationships between Chloe, Adam, and Beth work well – the Vuvv prove to be an almost insurmountable stumbling block. 

Communicating through a combination of mental telepathy and adapted sign language, interactions between them and the human characters feel odd. The fact that these are digital creations tends to make any scenes feel instantly artificial, which diminishes dramatic impact and lessens emotional investment.  

Nonetheless, Landscape with Invisible Hand is redeemed by its bold approach to some contemporary ideas, which if nothing else should offer audiences food for thought.

'Landscape with Invisible Hand' is more social commentary than alien infused rom-com. With some solid performances from Chloe Rogers and Assante Blackk, this adaptation of the M T Anderson novel will offer audiences food for thought.

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