Critics are having a field-day with Duncan Jones’ latest film, Mute. We look at why the film failed to impress.
Another day, another terrible science-fiction product from Netflix. The streaming service, once lauded for its high-quality content, has been churning out duds recently, including critically-panned fare like Bright and The Open House. Sci-fi thriller Mute has now joined their ignominious company.
Mute had a few original ideas but fell into the trap of trying to do too much. The end result is a rambling mess that has viewers wondering what they’ve just witnessed. Here we examine what went wrong and what could have been better in Mute.
1 – Two Underdeveloped Plots
There are essentially two stories fighting for supremacy in Mute. Neither is well-developed. Instead, they eat into each other’s time, which is a surprise considering the film is over two hours long.
The primary plot follows Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), a bartender who has been mute since childhood following an accident. As he comes from an Amish family, he is not allowed to get surgery to correct the injury and is thus, the only person in the film with a disability.
Leo is also averse to technology and lives a simple life despite the technological advancements around him. His girlfriend, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), a waitress at the same bar Leo works at, accepts his idiosyncrasies. The two seem fairly happy together until one day she disappears. Leo must find her by any means necessary.
The second story follows Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux). They help injured gangsters at their back-alley surgery. Bill really wants to get out of Berlin and go back to the USA. He is propelled by his need to get new IDs so he can leave. Then, a certain bartender gets in the way and jeopardises Bill’s escape plan. Bloodshed ensues.
The problem with having two stories that link up only at the very end of the film is that one invariably takes precedence over the other. Leo is the protagonist but he disappears from the screen for extended periods of time. Viewers end up having to reorient themselves every time the film switches back to Leo because the story has moved away from him for so long.
It would have been better to introduce the connection between the two plots early on and develop the story accordingly; in essence, employing the Zeigarnik effect to entice viewers. Unfortunately, that is not what happens.
2 – The Film’s Logic is Flawed
Leo’s vocal chords are cut in a motor-boat accident. Young Leo swims into the rotor blades of a boat which manage to cut the very specific area of his throat containing the vocal chords without damaging his face or any other part of his body. Even suspension of disbelief cannot explain away this one.
We learn Leo is Amish but somehow that does not stop him from being a bartender at a sleazy nightclub. Surely his Amish family, who refuse to let him get surgery or use technology, would take umbrage to him working in such a profession?
Leo’s girlfriend Naadirah is apparently very fond of him. Unfortunately, the two characters get so little time on-screen together that we don’t get to understand their bond. But, even if we did see more of them, we cannot help but wonder what attracts them to each other. We get a throwaway line from Naadirah about Leo being kind and different but that’s not a compelling reason.
And, Naadirah’s disappearance happens while she is lying in bed beside Leo. How does one sleep through a kidnapping so close to you? And, following her disappearance, Leo doesn’t immediately get into action to look for her. It takes him some time to realise that she may not have left but instead gone missing. That really does not follow from their earlier interactions.
There is a pivotal moment near the end of the film where a body is discovered. Through flashbacks, we learn that this body has been lying there, in the open, for quite a while. Why would any villain leave a body around for such a long time? Out in the open, to be so easily discovered? The scene helps answer a few questions but, again, it is so forced that it takes one completely out of the film.
Mute is more a conglomeration of scenes than a cohesive whole. Too many crucial elements are crowbarred in to tell the story. Apparently, this film has been in development since before Duncan Jones made Moon in 2009. But the final product feels like a film that’s been cobbled together in a hurry instead of being well thought out.
3 – The Visuals Are Superfluous
I am getting so tired of seeing shows and films re-tread Blade Runner‘s visuals. Between Bright, Altered Carbon and Mute, one would think there is no other way to visualize a high-tech future. Even the cars and screens look like they’ve been repurposed from the set of Blade Runner. And is there no way to show a dark, dystopian future without strip clubs and scenes set at night? Can these films not set any action scenes during the day?
Mute is set 40 years in the future, in Berlin. We are used to seeing such films set in the USA, so initially I thought it was interesting to feature a different country. Unfortunately, what we get are the usual futuristic skyscrapers visible in the background, along with flying cars and large screens. It doesn’t look different from anything else we’ve seen before.
Aside from a handful of characters speaking German, most of the characters are American, with the odd British character thrown in. We barely get a flavour of Germany from the cinematography so, why set it there? Look at Sense8, another Netflix production, that manages to bring the various cities featured on the show to life. Mute should have done that.
Audience fatigue at seeing the same thing over and over again is catching up. Films have to adapt their visuals and their story-telling if they want to captivate jaded viewers.
4 – Characters Aren’t Fully Developed
Great science-fiction stands out because of excellent characters. Mute tries desperately to convince viewers that its characters are different and brilliant. They are not.
Which is a shame because the acting is surprisingly good. Skarsgård does a great job emoting without words, perhaps not on par with Sally Hawkins in Oscar-nominated The Shape of Water, but he holds the viewer’s attention and makes for a solid protagonist. If only he had more to work with.
Leo’s character development goes thus – man who holds beliefs against technology will use technology to save the woman he loves. That is pretty much it. Where is Leo’s family? What is his relationship with his mother, who we are given to understand is the person most set against surgery for Leo’s voice? We are told, rather than shown, Leo’s familial bonds, but the character we see on screen is isolated with seemingly no ties to anyone.
It would have been great to know why he loves Naadirah. Especially because she is hardly the only person to be kind or understanding towards him. As the film progresses, we learn that Leo hasn’t even met her family and that Naadirah is keeping a huge secret from him. That doesn’t sound like a great relationship. Leo’s devotion to Naadirah would only make sense if he bothered to find out more about her.
Naadirah is given no development and merely serves as a Macguffin. Female characters and characters of colour are few and far between, a disturbing sight in 2018. Around every corner is another male character whether as helper or antagonist to Leo. Some of the male characters even dress as women, making the absence of women even more pronounced. I am unsure whether these characters were meant to be transgender. If so, why not hire transgender actors? That would have been more respectful than the caricatures we see in the film.
The scene stealers are Rudd and Theroux. They have great chemistry together and their banter feels organic. Bill and Duck talk about having been in the military together and hint at a past romantic relationship.
Bill’s motivation to get out of Berlin is something we learn much later in the film. His connection to Leo only appears in the last half hour making the majority of Bill’s screen time redundant.
Duck is a particularly odd and off-putting character. He is coded as bisexual but is also a paedophile? What? Way to play into the hands of homophobes! It was disgusting to watch, and worse, had absolutely no relevance to the story. Did it help to add nuance to the character? Yes, but it was incredibly disturbing and brought nothing to the film.
5 – Our Expectations Were Too High
Viewers cannot be blamed for having high expectations of Mute. Director Duncan Jones is the man behind cult science-fiction favourite, Moon. He also made the critically-acclaimed Source Code. Mute, which exists in the same universe as Moon, had all the markings of a great film. But it failed to deliver.
The cinematography is breath-taking, even if the Berlin of this film looks like every other city in cyber-noir sci-fi. The acting almost makes up for the dire lack of characterisation and stodgy plotting. The editing is decent, but at times, there are so many scenes interspersed that it becomes difficult to tell how much time has passed.
The pacing is poor as well, especially considering the length of the film. The slow start should have been dedicated to world-building but instead goes into fruitless scenes of exposition and fillers. The film tries to be too clever, and as often happens in such cases, bombs massively.
As enjoyable as some of the moments of Mute are, the basic plot is unoriginal, the characters aren’t interesting and overall, the film feels like a Blade Runner knockoff. Do yourself a favour and avoid this one. There is much better sci-fi out there.
We also had a lot of thoughts on Netflix’s Altered Carbon. Read more here.
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