Cory Finley - Landscape with Invisible Hand
Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
by Daniel Gorman Featured Film Genre Views

Landscape With Invisible Hand — Cory Finley

August 15, 2023

Cory Finely’s Landscape With Invisible Hand is an innocuous, flimsy little sci-fi movie, bandying about high concepts and reasonably detailed world-building but resolutely refusing to engage with any of its ideas in a meaningful way. It’s a game of spot the metaphor — aliens as disruptive tech bros, reality TV escapades, haves vs have nots,  artistic integrity, etc. It wants to be a movie about the now, but it’s barely a sitcom. All it needs is a piped-in laugh track.

In the not-too-distant future, an alien race called the Vuvv have conquered Earth not through intergalactic warfare but via corporate takeover — their advanced technology ingratiated them to human companies and sent the Stock Market soaring. Now the wealthy live in large floating cities that hover over the rest of humanity, terrestrials who scavenge the garbage that gets periodically dumped from above. It’s here that we meet high schooler Adam (Asante Blackk), his little sister Natalie (Brooklynn MacKinzie), and their mom, Beth (Tiffany Haddish). She used to be a lawyer until the Vuvv came along, but is now reduced to filling out job applications for food trucks.

At school, Adam and his sister wear cranial nodes that put them in a virtual 3D classroom with a cute, CGI alien who feeds them propaganda about the Vuvv’s supposed benevolence. Informed that he’s been downsized due to redundancy, Adam’s human teacher shoots himself outside of the building, (suggesting a much darker version of the film that ultimately doesn’t come to pass). Instead, Adam meets Chloe (Kylie Rogers), and the two hit it off. So much so that Adam invites Chloe and her family to come and stay with him. Adam’s mom isn’t particularly happy about this development, but acquiesces once she learns that Chloe and her father and brother have been homeless for some time.

There’s plenty of material here primed for all manner of potential narratives; particularly interesting in our late-capitalist, post-Amazon world is the notion of sifting through what remains of Earth when virtually everyone left is useless to the new powers that be. But the film instead veers into a kind of tired reality TV satire, as Chloe informs Adam that the Vuvv are obsessed with the idea of human courtship rituals. The Vuvv reproduce asexually and have no concept of romantic love, but pay good money to watch humans go about their relationship business. Soon, both families are flush with cash, eating real food instead of the plasticine cubes that the Vuvv produce, and encouraging Adam and Chloe to continue their now very public relationship.

But things eventually go awry, and the film splinters into a series of misunderstandings and miscommunications that derail the proceedings. Adam and Chloe begin to grow apart as the pressure of keeping up appearances weighs on them, while their respective families begin fighting over everything. Eventually, a high powered Vuvv sues Adam and Chloe, saying that the live stream of their courtship was a lie, and has therefore deceived viewers. It demands that the humans pay back all the money they’ve received over the life of their relationship, necessitating a visit by Adam and Chloe to one of those aforementioned floating cities and eventually a bizarre solution where Haddish marries a Vuvv. It’s a lot of plot, incident piled on top of incident, and while the film is amusing enough from moment to moment, it never coalesces into anything more than the sum of its parts.

Finley seems to be commenting on, or at least attempting to satirize, traditional family gender roles, but having a little squishy alien with paddles for hands imitating a 1950s sitcom dad is pretty low-hanging fruit. There’s a more interesting undercurrent involving Chloe’s increasingly resentful family, who come to view Adam, and particularly Beth, as “rich” people who are keeping the poor under their thumb. Beth balks at such an accusation, of course, insisting that they share a common enemy — the Vuvv. The fact that Adam and his family are Black while Chloe’s family is white isn’t mentioned, although that tension simmers just under the surface. Still, much like everything else here, these ideas are introduced and then largely forgotten, so determined is the movie to careen to the next plot point.

Once Adam has painted a huge mural on the side of the now-abandoned school, capturing the Vuvv’s interest in the process, the film changes gears yet again to focus on whether or not Adam will sell out to the aliens. They want him to become a sort of artist in residence, traveling to other parts of the galaxy to share the beauty of human creation, but at a price. Giant corporations commodifying art is yet another fruitful topic worthy of exploration, one that is here relegated to the last few minutes of an already overstuffed movie. Worst of all, there’s barely an interesting image in the whole thing. Landscape With Invisible Hand looks and feels like a generic prestige series angling for HBO distribution, not a film.

DIRECTOR: Cory Finley;  CAST: Asante Blackk, Kylie Rogers, Tiffany Haddish, Josh Hamilton;  DISTRIBUTOR: MGM;  IN THEATERS: August 18;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 45 min.

Originally published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 5.