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Mute

Year: 2018
Production Co: Liberty Films UK
Studio: Netflix
Director: Duncan Jones
Writer: Duncan Jones
Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Seyneb Saleh, Justin Theroux, Paul Rudd, Dominic Monaghan

Warcraft was to Duncan Jones what the recent Tomb Raider was to Roar Uthaug of The Wave or Godzilla was to Gareth Edwards – the big second movie with more money, more expectations and undoubtedly much more creative interference.

I won't suggest Jones sold his soul to the devil for a big paycheque and a high budget, but I'm sure after the creative freedom he would have had on Moon, Warcraft would have been a fairly crushing experience. The end result on screen is pretty obvious it was the result of a progression of studio strictures quashing any individuality on his part thanks to an attempt to build a middle of the road CG franchise starter.

For that reason, Mute feels like it would have been a breath of fresh air for him. Taking advantage of Netflix's famously deep pockets and hands-off approach, he got to craft a story we've never seen set in a world full of sights and sounds all its own.

I remember the initial flurry of interest – there was an interesting marketing artefact in the Golden Age of Hollywood-inspired poster – and the promise of Blade Runner -like visuals and (gasp) an original idea were intriguing.

Plenty of other directors who are burned after joining the big leagues go back to smaller budgets where we see them really shine, but Jones hasn't done that here. If this is a filmmaker with total control over the material, it's more Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace than La La Land.

Maybe Netflix does interfere and their corporate mandate is to make features where the weak story makes no sense (see Special Correspondents, War Machine and plenty of others), because despite a strong sense of its own visual language and the world in which it's set, Mute is a terrible shambles.

Human hatstand Alexander Skarsgård (see The Legend of Tarzan) is as dull as dishwater as the hero of the tale, Leo. A deaf mute in a near future Berlin, Leo lives for his beautiful girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh) in a childlike kind of devotion despite the shady past she doesn't want to talk about.

When she goes missing one night from the sleazy club where they both work, Leo goes on a mission to get her back. It puts him into the orbits of a cast of colourful local characters including Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux as a pair of US army surgeons who operate a surgery racket on the side for local mobsters, one of whom owns the club where Leo and Naadirah work.

At least, I think. You'd imagine a plot this full of twists, turns, unexpected directions and way-out characters would be memorable, but it's just a turgid mess. Paul Rudd looks like he relished the chance not only to play a sleazebag villain but to do something outside the very straight lines of the Marvel universe.

Some stuff works, but not enough. The characters are well drawn (with the exception of the fade-into-the-wallpaper Leo) and the look and texture of near future Berlin is well designed and executed, but none of those elements are enough to elevate the story. The love story is insipid, the subplots fuzzy and the whole thing's too esoteric to follow – and not because it's avant garde either, just because it's badly written.

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