Adam (Asante Blackk) and Chloe (Kylie Rogers) look up at a Vuvv city. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Jan. 25 (UPI) — Landscape with Invisible Hand, which premiered Monday at the Sundance Film Festival, is a poignant science fiction film about income inequality. It renders the metaphor entertaining as successfully as classic sci-fi like Robocop and District 9.
In 2036, it has been five years since first contact with the Vuvv aliens. The Vuvv gave Earth its technology and invited humans to work for them.
Those who took the offer live in cities floating above the Earth, although visually they appear smaller than the alien ships from Independence Day. But, the Campbells still live on Earth, where humans struggle to get by.
Beth Campbell (Tiffany Haddish) was a lawyer back when such professions were relevant, but she still owns the home in which her children, Adam (Asante Blackk) and Natalie (Brooklynn MacKinzie), live with her.
At school, where the Vuvv now control the curriculum, Adam meets Chloe Marsh (Kylie Rogers). Her family is homeless because her father lost his job to the Vuvv.
So Beth reluctantly allows Adam to invite Chloe to live in their basement, along with her father (Josh Hamilton) and brother, Hunter (Michael Gandolfini).
The world building in Landscape with Invisible Hand makes the post-Vuvv future palpable, even if it’s not as immediately striking as Blade Runner. Details like the Vuvv controlling food production — unappetizing but perfectly nourishing food cubes — suggest what life is like in 2036.
Natalie plants a garden to enjoy natural food, but Adam doesn’t think it tastes as good. That’s enough detail to immerse the audience, but also allows the film to move on quickly to the plot.
So, too, the film shows how cities above discard their garbage, some of which is useful to scavengers on the ground. But, the plot organically weaves in this dynamic, too.
Chloe proposes that she and Adam sell their courtship broadcast rights to the Vuvv. The Vuvv pays good money to observe human mating rituals, and this income allows the Marshes to pay rent to the Campbells.
So now, you have a teen dating comedy in a sci-fi movie that also is a statement about reality TV. Surveillance states also are a familiar theme to science-fiction, but to the Vuvv’s credit, they are trying to learn, not oppress.
Inevitably, Chloe and Adam disagree about how to cope with the Vuvv. Chloe is game to broadcast their intimate moments for profit, but that proves to be one step too far for Adam. Besides, he would like to have a genuine relationship with Chloe.
Unfortunately, Adam and Chloe quickly discover a catch to the Vuvv’s proposal. They find themselves in breach of contract (a dense alien contract whose English language translation is as dense as Apple’s terms and conditions), so the Vuvv is still in total control, after all.
The Vuvv proposes an even more outlandish arrangement that this review won’t spoil. Landscape is based on the book by M.T. Anderson, so his readers probably already know.
The Marsh family represents the other interesting side of the income inequality parable. Hunter and Mr. Marsh lash out at Beth, when it’s really the Vuvv who put them in that situation.
The basement and ground floor become a microcosm of the Earth and Vuvv cities above. Someone always has it better, and someone always resents it. The Marshes still act entitled when Beth is doing them a favor.
So the Vuvv are able to tear humanity apart from the inside rather than by violent invasion. Based on current events, it appears humanity doesn’t even need the Vuvv to do this to ourselves.
The Vuvv look truly alien. These are not humanoid creatures, neither actors in costumes nor bipedal visual effects.
Their language is so foreign, human fans could not learn it like they learn Klingon. The Vuvv rub their tentacles together to make words, but they have translation technology.
Landscape with Invisible Hand makes a compelling entry into the science fiction canon. The Vuvv are an interesting extrapolation of the 1%, and they force characters to make dramatic decisions, which keeps the movie unpredictable.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.