In a world filled with TikTok, YouTube, and Spotify, where everyone is in a race to promote themselves, the new sci-fi drama “Landscape With Invisible Hand” doesn’t seem very futuristic even though it takes place in 2036 post-alien colonization. The off-the-wall story features teenage couple Adam (Asante Blackk) and Chloe (Kylie Rogers) under the microscope of the space invaders called the vuvv who are interested in studying human courtship. As the young couple broadcasts their dating ritual to the aliens in the hopes of attracting viewers and cash, the real love they once felt for each other diminishes as they become social media versions of their true selves.
Based on the young adult novel by M.T. Anderson, adapted for the screen by writer-director Cory Finley (“Thoroughbreds,” “Bad Education”), the futuristic setting finds Earth a ravaged planet where the poor struggle to survive while the rich live and work for the vuvv on floating cities which hover over the landscape.
Tiffany Haddish plays Beth Campbell, a former lawyer and mother to teens Adam and Nettie (Brooklynn MacKinzie). Like most people still stuck down on the planet’s surface, she’s unemployed and struggling to make ends meet.
The local high school is dilapidated, and teachers are getting laid off left and right. Their replacements: vuvv created artificial intelligence. A grim scene takes place in front of the school featuring a laid-off teacher unable to cope with this brave new world.
Adam is a budding artist whose paintings divide the film into chapters with one piece of art giving us the film’s title. While in art class he meets new student Chloe Marsh who doesn’t seem to be taking the elective seriously, judging by her phallic drawing with a smiley face. The two become friends and Adam discovers Chloe’s family is homeless.
Without checking with Mom, Adam invites Chloe’s family, which includes her father (Josh Hamilton) and brother (Michael Gandolfini) to move in with them since there’s plenty of room in the basement. Beth knows her son has a big heart, so she reluctantly agrees but soon discovers the Marsh family taking over the home which calls for ground rules.
Since the vuvv don’t have emotions, Chloe comes up with a scheme to make some money for their families. “They find romantic stuff super exotic and interesting,” she tells Adam, so they decide to start a pay-per-view channel titled “Adam and Chloe in Love” where they go on old-fashioned dates (the vuvv seem to be fascinated with the 50s) broadcast by adhesive Bluetooth devices that attach to their foreheads. The vuvv treat the teenagers’ broadcast as a new streaming series and soon the money begins rolling in.
Chloe becomes obsessed with the broadcast the same way scores of people these days become obsessed with gaining followers and likes on social media. Soon any true feelings the couple had for each other are diminished but Chloe convinces Adam to fake it for the broadcast so they can continue to monetize their channel.
The aliens pick up on the lack of authenticity in their relationship and soon the teens find themselves being sued for deceiving their viewers by not being in love. “I want you to repay all the funds you received” species a vuvv leader named Shirley. Adam replies, “We’ve already spent everything we’ve made just to live.” The only option is a court battle that could result in the Campbell and Marsh families being in debt to the vuvv for six generations.
As a former lawyer, Beth tries to negotiate with Shirley leading to a compromise that makes everything in the film up to this point seem completely normal. She agrees to marry a vuvv who moves in and begins forcing the family to begin acting as if they’re in a 50s sitcom. It’s strange but also intriguing, in the way you can’t take your eyes off an accident.
If you took the aliens out of the equation this would be a much better film focused on these interesting characters fending for themselves in a dystopian society. There’s a moment in the film where Beth and Mr. Marsh get into it as he brings up their social divide. Beth being a single mom and unemployed is anything but rich, however, the Campbell family is frowned upon by the Marsh family who perceive them as arrogant and snobbish just because they have a home.
Still, I must embrace the quirkiness of Finley’s third feature. The pinkish aliens look like Spam with snail-like eyes and hands that resemble exfoliating loofah sponges. The coarse sound the vuvv make while rubbing their hands together to speak gets annoying fast.
The cast is solid with good performances by Asante Blackk and Tiffany Haddish, and I did enjoy Josh Hamilton’s low-key portrayal as the father who will go to any length to provide for his family. Now someone, get that man a wig!
The exceptional artwork in the film which separates the chapters is courtesy of Atlanta-based artist William Downs who worked with Blackk on his mannerisms as a budding painter.
If you’re a fan of offbeat cinema and you’re looking for something fresh to watch, “Landscape With Invisible Hands” is just the ticket you need to purchase. Compared to the teens in Finley’s debut feature “Thoroughbreds,” this is like an ABC Afterschool Special which should appeal to young adults, just as M.T. Anderson intended.
Now showing in theaters