By Guru Ramanathan, Staff Writer
Duncan Jones’ “Moon” is an underrated sci-fi film that became a cult classic due to the astounding performance from Sam Rockwell, stunning visual effects on a small budget, and a haunting score from Clint Mansell. Almost ten years later, Jones has co-written and directed “Mute,” a spiritual sequel to “Moon” being released on Netflix. Despite the promise Jones showed in his feature debut (and follow up “Source Code”), “Mute” is a bland disappointment with semblance of a good movie buried within.
Set in futuristic Berlin, the film follows Leo (Alexander Skarsgard), a mute Amish bartender who searches for his girlfriend after she disappears. Alongside his story are surgeons Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux) who perform operations on the black market. Bill is an American soldier gone AWOL who is trying to find a way to get him and his daughter back to America.
Both of those stories were interesting on their own, and had Jones focused on one of them the film may have been a more pleasurable (and shorter) experience. Instead he drags out this aimlessly nihilistic sci-fi neo-noir and only has the two narratives intersecting in the final act at which point it is not even worth caring anymore. Jones introduces a lot of interesting ideas, specifically the addiction faced in a technologically driven world through the fact that Leo is a technophobe. His mother did not even allow doctors to perform on him when a boating accident rendered him mute—it is ingrained in every one of his Amish bones to resist technology. That conflict alone is worth exploring in spades, but it is more so inserted at the beginning and sometimes sought after.
Frankly, Leo is an uninteresting character. The first thirty minutes are spent developing his romance and those moments are sweet if not a little meandering, but the rest of the film he is a lumbering man of violence that wanders to each plot point. It is no small feat to act with no dialogue, and Skarsgard should be applauded for his efforts even if he did not entirely succeed. Bill is aggressive and deeply flawed but cares about his daughter, while Duck is a troubled pervert who loves saying “baby” and is just as unlikeable—yet they are in many ways far superior characters, and the actors do a much better job taking ownership of the characters’ shortcomings and exploring their intricacies well. Rudd especially goes against type, and him and Theroux are more fun and engaging to watch while Skarsgard has trouble carrying some scenes. It would have been a very different movie, but perhaps a more interesting one if Bill and Duck were the main characters instead.
Even visually Jones fails to offer the same originality he showed in “Moon.” His future Berlin is pretty but feels like a poor derivative of “Blade Runner” with a few references to “Moon” to make a shared universe. By the end it becomes painstakingly clear in some scenes how good “Mute” could have been had Jones made a few different decisions in the creative process. It is not just a bad film; it is a sad missed opportunity.