Duncan Jones’ 2009 film Moon heralded the arrival of fresh and exciting voice in the science fiction genre. The film was smart, thought-provoking, and paid homage to its cinematic forefathers (most notably 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris) without being too derivative. Jones would make a follow up film that hurdled over the sophomore slump like an espresso-fueled cheetah two years later with Source Code, a fresh take on the notion of being stuck in a time loop (think Groundhog’s Day, but way sadder).
Jones was two for two in the hearts of critics and genre fans alike, but five years later, the filmmaker’s batting average would take a pretty steep dive with Warcraft, the film adaption of the massively popular video game series from Blizzard Entertainment. The movie was met with lackluster reviews and less-than-stellar box office returns in North America. (The film did very well overseas and broke box office records all over the globe, however.)
While there were plenty of redeemable aspects of Warcraft (we’ve never seen an orc throw a horse at someone before, so there’s that), fans of Jones were pleased as punch when he announced his return to the science fiction genre with his passion project Mute, a film that was being presented as being a companion piece to his freshman film, Moon. After years of teasing production updates on social media, Mute has finally arrived to Netflix and it’s… well… not great.
Here’s the Thing…
If Jones’ first two films are any indication, he is a director who loves to take classic science fiction tropes and retell them in interesting ways with an extremely talented small cast. Just because everything under the sun has been done, doesn’t mean you can’t do it well and make it entertaining. With Mute, Jones decided to tackle the neo-noir, cyberpunk aesthetic that films like Blade Runner and the novels of William Gibson honed to perfection. But in doing so, he was unable to find the structural balance of the story that made both Moon and Source Code work so well. That is to say, Mute simultaneously became beholden to its premise, while disregarding the tropes of the genre it wanted to play in.
Mute tries to be a noir detective film, but it doesn’t care about the hallmarks of the genre. Typically in noir, the story closely follows the protagonist. This is why several noir/hard boiled crime novels are written in the first person narrative. There isn’t a moment we aren’t with the detective or in their head. We, as readers, are discovering things along with our hero. When they get new information, we get new information.
Understandably, noir films don’t always adhere to this guideline. Film is a visual medium and sometimes it’s hard to convey internal struggles or the emotional weight certain characters may bare on the protagonist without a little divergence from the detective’s trail. A prime example of this would be the little asides Blade Runner took to focus on some of the Nexus-6 replicants without Deckard holding the audience’s hands.
But the asides in Blade Runner (and its stellar sequel Blade Runner 2049) were brief and gave a little more levity to some of the characters who our hero saw as villains. Mute decides to take some similar digressions with the protagonists, but instead of small glimpses into their motivations, they add up to an entire B plot that does little to develop the larger narrative and ultimately takes the wind out of our hero’s sails, thus leaving the audience wondering why we should give a hoot about the big mystery of the film in the first place.