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Home Entertainment Review | ‘Landscape With Invisible Hand’: The aliens like to watch

Review | ‘Landscape With Invisible Hand’: The aliens like to watch


(2 stars)

M.T. Anderson’s young adult novel “Landscape With Invisible Hand” makes for a smart but strangely lackluster screen adaptation, a movie that never quite levitates despite several extraterrestrial liftoffs throughout an increasingly bizarre story.

Set in Providence, R.I., circa 2036-2037, this exercise in speculative pessimism revisits the classic they-came-from-outer-space story with an intriguing twist: After observing Earthlings since 1953, the aliens have already landed. Now they’re annoying facts of life, controlling everything from public education and the food supply to the economy, all from gigantic self-contained environments that hover ominously over daily life. The privileged classes have figured out ways to work for the Vuvv, which one character compares to “gooey coffee tables,” with eyestalks rivaling those of Gary the snail on “SpongeBob SquarePants.” Although they consider themselves far more advanced than mere humans, they’re fascinated by 1950s pop culture, especially TV sitcoms and teen melodramas like “Rebel Without a Cause.” Which is why they’ll pay good money to have couples upload their courtship rituals via the ever-present “nodes” on their temples. This is where a couple of appealingly disenchanted high-schoolers named Adam (Asante Blackk) and Chloe (Kylie Rogers) come in.

Adam, a gifted painter whose works serve as arresting visual chapter headings, has been living with his mom Beth (Tiffany Haddish) and sister Natalie (Brooklynn MacKinzie) in rapidly declining prosperity when he meets Chloe in art class; she and her father and brother (Josh Hamilton and Michael Gandolfini) are homeless, and Adam immediately invites them to live in his family’s basement. While Adam and Chloe’s romance blooms — Vuvv eyeballs and valuable dollars — class resentments simmer between the two families. Given the titular Invisible Hand — an economic idea originated by Adam Smith — it’s clear that this sci-fi flick will have more on its mind than pod-people paranoia or space-age gimcrackery. As the plot gets stranger, the themes that weave through “Landscape With Invisible Hand” become more pronounced, from the ways race, class and gender skew capitalist competition to the commodification of art.

Written for the screen and directed by Cory Finley, “Landscape With Invisible Hand” feels reasonably faithful to its source material, and it benefits from a lovely musical score by Michael Abels and an appropriately Lynchian visual design by Sue Chan. (William Downs did most of the paintings Adam creates throughout the film, which exude a rich, rough-hewed authenticity.) The Vuvv creatures, who communicate by slaps and rasps created by flipper-like extremities, possess their own kind of charm. But, with the exception of a few choice words from Haddish, “Landscape With Invisible Hand” lacks the kind of steady humor and energy that would otherwise keep the story afloat.

Shellshocked by not just the alien invasion but the loss of his father, Adam turns out to be an emotionally inert protagonist. The blisteringly pragmatic Chloe might be more interesting — Rogers is a wonderfully nuanced young actress — but winds up being relegated to the sidelines in a plot that somehow reaches peak absurdity without many genuine laughs. In many ways, “Landscape With Invisible Hand” succumbs to the same defeated sense of numbness that pervades Adam’s joyless, present-adjacent world. Finley might end the movie with a bracing defense of art as necessity and life force. But the film itself feels less exhilaratingly optimistic than resigned.

R. At area theaters. Contains strong language and brief violence. 105 minutes.

POST AUTHOR: Ann Hornaday

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