This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn't exist.
Landscape with Invisible Hand, the newest film from Thoroughbreds writer/director Cory Finley, blends a high-concept science fiction story with all-too-human anger. But beneath that anger–or perhaps more precisely–fueling that anger, is love, the love that humans share with one another.
The film, adapted by Finley from the novel by M.T. Anderson, takes place in 2036, five years after the arrival of an alien species called the Vuvv on Earth. According to propaganda lessons that human children receive through the head attachments called “nodes,” the Vuvv introduced technology that grows food without using up dwindling resources. But the realities of human life on Earth belies that message.
Life Under Vuvv Rule
Early in the film, Finley focuses his camera on a stack of unpaid bills to suggest Vuvv have yet to cure all humanity's woes. Schools no longer need teachers because the nodes can teach human children for free. The film’s plot begins when teenager Adam (Asante Blackk) invites his classmate Chloe (Kylie Rogers) and her family to live with him because they cannot afford shelter. The world of Landscape with Invisible Hand resembles our own more than those in other speculative sci-fi. Nothing about life on Earth has really changed; the arrival of the Vuvv has exacerbated all the problems of capitalism.
Finley intimates greater stratification of class on Earth under Vuvv rule, as the wealthiest humans live alongside Vuvv in cities that float above their less-wealthy counterparts. Movies have shown floating cities before, but the difficulty of discerning the differences between our lives and the lives of those in the shadow of these cities in Landscape with Invisible Hand makes the film unique.
Anything To Survive
Soon after Chloe and her family move into Adam’s basement, with some protest from his mother Beth (a fantastic Tiffany Haddish), he and Chloe develop feelings for one another. Blackk and Rogers share real sweetness and excitement about their new relationship, which makes their love story more affecting. As their infatuation buds, Chloe has the brilliant idea of monetizing their romance. Vuvv reproduce asexually, and have no concept of romance, so they find human courtship fascinating.
Chloe informs Adam of “Courtship Broadcasting,” which allows them to broadcast their lives to Vuvv viewers using their nodes. The nodes, like the SQUID in Strange Days, allow viewers to experience every aspect of what the node’s wearer experiences, from flushed cheeks to sweaty palms. It’s this full-body experience that makes Adan and Chloe's show a success at first. But as conflicts arise and flutters fade, the Vuvv feel the teens' emotions and deem their broadcast Adam and Chloe in Love as deceitful.
The conflicts expand beyond the teens to their families as they all share a home. Landscape with Invisible Hand uses the conflicts to explore its many themes, including questions of authenticity in front of an audience and human responses to uncaring capitalism. The film seems most preoccupied with those reactions to capitalism, which shifts into a series of embarrassments for the human characters in the wake of Adam and Chloe’s breakup.
Sight Gag Satire
Remarkably, those embarrassments never distract or undercut the desperation or the cruel social structures that led to them. In a film filled with sight gags and physical comedy, it would be easy for the more ridiculous moments to undermine the anger motivating the film. Instead, these scenes emphasize the resilience of human beings to live, laugh, and love even under dire circumstances.
The Vuvv invaders' anatomy, with bodies that look like cubes of uncooked chicken with four flippers, leads to several memorable sight gags. At one point, a sitcom-obsessed Vuvv struggles to use a remote control with its appendages. In one of the few moments of physical interaction between a Vuvv and a human, we see how physically powerless they are compared to our taller and more dexterous species.
It’s not just jokes that make the film a success, though. The Vuvv, their floating cities, and the interiors of their spaceships look remarkably simple for such an advanced society. While that simplicity almost becomes a joke in and of itself, from a practical standpoint, it allows this mid-budget sci-fi film to render its fantastical elements credible alongside human beings. In perhaps the movie's most exciting creative choice, the Vuvv use the rough undersides of their two front flippers to create specific scraping sounds, which function as their language. It’s another simple idea in the film that proves sci-fi doesn’t need complex special effects to delight with world-building.
Love Is The Answer
Landscape with Invisible Hand teems with anger, and detractors might accuse it of fueling a “burn it all down” ideology. But, as Che Guevara once said, “The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.” In Landscape with Invisible Hand, human love motivates anger toward a dehumanizing social structure. Love offers the only pathway to transcend that structure…if humans can avoid it being co-opted as entertainment for our oppressors.
Rating: 7/10 SPECS
Landscape with Invisible Hand releases in theaters nationwide on August 18. We’ve got the latest on movies in theaters now.
Kyle Logan is a film and television critic and general pop culture writer who has written for Alternative Press, Cultured Vultures, Film Stories, Looper, and more. Kyle is particularly interested in horror and animation, as well as genre films written and directed by queer people and women. Along with writing, Kyle organizes a Queer Film Challenge on Letterboxd.