What if aliens invaded and weren’t exactly hostile, but just condescending? The unique vision of Landscape with Invisible Hand imagines a world in which the year is 2036 and first contact has changed everything. People either live in varying degrees of poverty on land or in fancy floating cities, and they wear nodes that enable them to receive instruction and also to broadcast out, which one enterprising teenager realizes is the way to change her fortunes, unaware of the consequences it will bring.
It’s fascinating to see how this alien race, the Vuvv, is portrayed. One human describes them as “gooey coffee tables,” and they communicate their clacking language by loudly rubbing their tentacle hands together. The education they provide emphasizes how much they’ve helped civilize the human race, in what writer-director Cory Finley describes as “a purely financial, free market takeover of Earth.” They purport to be experts on concepts they can’t relate to themselves, like human love, and show their fascination by watching and funding these node-captured moments of genuine human interaction.
Finley has a distinct vision that he has shown with his previous films, Thoroughbreds and Bad Education, and he brings a fascinating perspective to this adaptation of the novel by M.T. Anderson. There is no violence in this story, and its protagonists rebel mostly through frequent complaining and, in the case of Adam (Asante Blackk), by creating wondrous works of art. There is a humorous device that introduces the timeline of the film and then divides each section where one of Adam’s paintings is shown, accompanied by a title, medium, and year.
There is an enticing energy to this film as Adam meets Chloe (Kylie Rogers), who is new to his school and seeking a place for her family to stay after they have been forced to leave their home. Once they are residing in Adam’s basement, she immediately suggests the idea of commercializing their budding romance, and her attitude is indicative of the overall human response to being colonized, to make do and find ways to improve an inescapable situation. These are normal people with normal problems who simply have to adjust to a new world order they couldn’t possibly hope to change.
This film is full of laughs, but they’re not cheap. This whole world is absurd, but the aliens run things, and therefore their gelatinous appearances must be taken seriously to a degree. It’s a difficult thing to balance, and this film does so very well. Tiffany Haddish, who plays Adam’s mother, describes working with a “porcelain turkey” that was greatly enhanced by visual effects, which create an alien-enhanced world that is at the same time futuristic and drearily dated. It’s almost too bizarre to find funny, but there’s still entertainment to be found in the human-Vuvv interactions.
The premise of Landscape with Invisible Hand works as well as it does thanks to the efforts of a dedicated and stellar cast. Blackk, who makes his film debut after standout TV work in When They See Us and This Is Us, is fresh and genuine, reacting as any teenager might to his alternately weird and terrifying reality. He’s wonderfully-matched with Rogers, who takes charge from her first moment on screen and shows that Chloe knows how to survive and thrive. Haddish’s comedy is also well-suited to the film, as are Josh Hamilton and Michael Gandolfini, who play Chloe’s father and brother, respectively.
In addition to its frequent humor, like announcements of “it will see you now,” this film folds in some worthwhile social commentary about autonomy, social expectations, wealth gaps, and individuality. The paintings are a fun touch that also serve to drive the plot forward as Adam expresses himself through his paintbrush. Landscape with Invisible Hand takes an out-of-this-world concept and runs with it, and the result is memorable, marvelous, and at times, even moving.
Landscape with Invisible Hand is playing in the Premieres section of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and will be released by MGM.
Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute