Film studios have repurposed so many old toys, old video games, old amusement park rides — so many products in hopes of capitalizing on moviegoer nostalgia. They’ve even gone to the board game closet. (Remember Battleship?) I’m surprised we haven’t had to suffer Operation: The Movie yet. (I’m sure that screenplays for this must exist!)

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mean to be cynical. I scoffed at the idea of The LEGO Movie once, and when it finally arrived, it turned out to be an instant animated classic.

But Operation? Could something so ridiculous actually work? It would take a steady hand.

I nominate director David Cronenberg.

In fact, if you re-introduced Cronenberg’s latest sci-fi shenanigans — a film called Crimes of the Future — and slapped the title Operation on it, that would work! Most of the tension in Crimes of the Future comes from watching futuristic surgeons poke and probe a patient’s innards, pull particular organs out into the light, and try to avoid errors.

Caprice (Lea Seydoux) gets intimate with Saul (Viggo Mortenson) between performance-art surgery gigs. [Image from the Neon trailer.]

Think about it: This is right in Cronenberg’s greasy wheelhouse, right? He’s made a career of drawing attention to our bodies — how fragile they are, how uncontrollable, how troubled and troubling. And in doing so, he’s investigated the troubled and troubling impulses that compel those bodies. Think of The Brood, The Fly, and Crash. Consider my two personal favorites: eXistenz and A History of Violence. He’s a composer who plays variations on themes, but only after he’s opened up his organic pianos and experimented with their architecture. He shakes up our certainties, blurring the definitions of things we’d hope are fixed. And in doing so, he holds up a troubling funhouse mirror to misdeeds human beings already commit.

Let’s carefully withdraw some of the internal treasures of Crimes of the Future and see if they enlighten us.

Moviegoers know how normal it has become to share the personal in public — selfies, pictures of food we’re about to eat, and other social media exhibitionism are as common as commercials now. So it’s easy to assume that we will take this openness to new and unforeseen extremes.

That’s the premise here: In a future not far out of reach or the realm of possibility, it turns out human beings, having found ways to make pain and infection a thing of the past, are now literally baring their hearts and spilling their guts onstage, surrounded by cameras. They’ve turned surgical procedures between consenting surgeons and patients into public performance art.

The show must grow on: Caprice approaches the sarcophagus-like surgery bed within which Saul is “working” on something new. [Image from the Neon trailer.]

And then, in a twist that could only have come from Cronenberg himself, the patients are conscious during surgery. It is on one of these celebrity surgery tours that we meet our main characters. Patient Zero is Saul Tenser — played with conviction by Viggo Mortensen. Tenser might make audiences tenser, but he seems surprisingly zen himself when it comes to being dismembered in the spotlight. You might even say it’s his purpose in life, as he suffers a disease called Accelerated Evolution Syndrome, which busies him with the work of birthing new organs into existence. His surgeon isn’t trying to cure him; she’s more like a celebrity of archaeology or geology, digging up natural wonders on camera.

These surgeries on Saul’s morphing form are performed by his partner Caprice (Lea Seydoux, at her gentle best). There are a lot of close-ups of incisions, of Caprice (and others) rooting around in Saul’s insides as if looking for a toy in a Cracker Jack box, or a lost LEGO at the bottom of a ball pit. This is done with a mix of reverence and whimsy, which makes Caprice’s name seem all the more apt. (The term caprice can refer to impulsive action. It’s also a form of the term cappricio, which refers to artwork that represents a mix of real and imagined aspects.)

And there are “treasures” inside of him, at least according to Caprice and the attentive audiences as these performances: That’s the biggest idea of all in this challenge to our suspension of disbelief. In the future, Saul’s Accelerated Evolution Syndrome isn’t viewed as a disorder but as innovation. He’s growing new organs that might adapt, expand, and evolve what a human being can be.

A jarring work of art? The fruit of Saul’s labor is put on display. Caprice gets intimate with Saul between performance-art surgery gigs. [Image from the Neon trailer.]

If you’re not squirming yet, you probably should be. This movie will probably make you uncomfortable. You’ll see dripping bits of innards removed and held up to the light by awestruck scientists just the way David Attenborough might lift up a never-before-seen species of frog that can heal itself. If that makes you squeamish, steer clear.

But on the other hand, the film isn’t gory in the sense of gushing blood or sudden violence. Fear not. Or, well… fear a little less, anyway. It’s all very clinical. This is no glorification of body alteration. Nor is it “torture porn” — not in the familiar sense, anyway. Cronenberg may take us to troubling places, but he always does so in order to explore important questions. In Cronenberg on Cronenberg, he says, “I think of horror films as art, as films of confrontation. Films that make you confront aspects of your own life that are difficult to face.”*

Images of Saul on the operating table, or having his body manipulated by the skeletal arms of a robotic chair so that he can successfully swallow and digest his food, are more challenging than gross. They confront us with questions about Saul’s character: Is he a genius, a madman, a holy fool, a martyr for a good cause, an abomination, or all of the above? Cinematographer Douglas Koch (who filmed I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing way back in 1987) often frames Mortensen in Falconetti-esque closeups, so we see him “suffering” in states of near-sexual ecstasy as his body goes to “work” on new inventions.

Behold the passion of Saul Tenser.

And for all of its biological curiosity, Cronenberg’s film remains far more intently focused on philosophical inquiries.

Crimes opens with a horrifying vision that will set our minds on crimes of the recent past and present. We see a young boy named Breckan (Sozos Sotiris) picking at flotsam on the shore, with an overturned ship (a reminder, perhaps, of the Costa Concordia or other ocean-wrecking disasters) as a backdrop. Breckan isn’t looking for fish. He has a sort of amplified case of pica — he doesn’t just chew on plastic; he’s ravenous to eat it. So we’re immediately prompted to view how our technological advances have corrupted our environment, and how our environment is corrupting us.

What’s even scarier is that this boy is unwittingly connected to a conspiracy that wants to embrace the corruption, wants human beings to hunger for what is toxic. Breckan’s mother (Lihi Kornowski) condemns him as an abomination, knowing that his father (Scott Speedman) may have ties to extremists who are trying to turn the human body into a natural recycling plant for synthetic substances.

Breckan the boy who loves plastic sifts the sand for snacks.

But Cronenberg has more than pollution and the genetic disruption of our groceries on his mind. He’s thinking about other kinds of appetites, including our hunger for entertainment and art.

Crimes of the Future investigates about the mysterious and personal nature of art: where it comes from, how it asks artists to expose themselves in costly ways, how commercial and corporate interests corrupt it, and how crowd-pleasing can run counter to an artist’s own visions. It dares to confront us with a messy, bodily manifestation of what artists are doing as they wrestle questions into art, as they fight with troubles to produce new pearls of wisdom. I can’t help but wonder if Cronenberg wasn’t thinking of Rumi, who wrote (in his three-volume work of mystical poetry Masnavi), “New organs of perception come into being as a result of necessity. Therefore, O man, increase your necessity, so that you may increase your perception.” In having his torso literally unzipped, Saul is making himself frightfully vulnerable, putting himself at the mercy of his muses. And, in such a state of necessity and “openness,” he is able to receive new revelations and, in a sense, give birth to them and release them into the world for better or worse.

What some critics seem to be missing is that the film’s regular adoption and repurposing of common artist-speak to this context of exhibitionist surgeons and exhibitionist patients is not only clever — it’s often hilarious. I laughed out loud several times over the course of this moody, shadowy exploration, and the fact that nobody else was laughing made me wonder if artists aren’t the movie’s intended audience — those who wrestle with questions common to these agents of dismemberment. “Be open with me,” one lover pleads with another, referring to a very literal openness. “I want to know what we’re getting into,” says another, not far from the operating table.

Timlin (Kristen Stewart), an agent of the National Organ Registry, is eager to catalogue new body parts swelling in Saul, the host body.[Image from the Neon trailer.]

Much of the film’s comic cleverness comes from its outstanding ensemble cast. If you can stomach (I’m sorry) the onscreen entrails, you will be treated to one of Mortenson’s finest performances, Seydoux’s loveliest and gentlest work yet, and — perhaps best of all — Kristen Stewart’s inspired comic turn. Stewart plays Timlin, a surgery-geek fangirl. As the observant Sarah Welch-Larson has already noted, Stewart’s performance DNA carries traces of Peter Lorre. Timlin whispers mischievously to Saul that “Surgery is the new sex,” but when she later comes on to him the old-fashioned way, he responds, “I’m not very good at the old sex.”

Timlin’s just one of a large cast of supporting characters, all of them messing with ethical boundaries. This doesn’t bother me, as the film feels playful, almost improvisational, a jaunt through a Curiosity Shoppe of Cronenberg Horrors rather than a seamless tapestry of storylines.

I was particularly delighted to see indie filmmaker and actor Don McKellar show up in an important supporting role. There’s something to this: McKellar starred in Atom Egoyan’s 1994 film Exotica, another unpredictable film set in a strange underworld. In that film, he played Thomas, a secretive and eccentric entrepreneur who, under the cover of a legitimate pet store, was illegally importing and selling rare bird species. There’s something intuitive about casting him here as Wippet, Timlin’s partner at the National Organ Registry, a sort of startup branch of government that investigates and catalogues organs and their functions the way the Internet Movie Database catalogues movies.

Wippet’s here to expose some of the ways in which capitalism can corrode artistic vision; to show how narrow-mindedness can prevent artists from new discoveries; and then to question just how “healthy” it is to incubate such perverse visions. These are matters that I, as a fantasy writer, find close to my heart. They inspire me to reexamine what I’m doing when I write, and — perhaps more importantly — why I’m doing it. So maybe I’m one of the few who will feel satisfied with what they’re served here.

All of this is elevated by a rich score from the great Howard Shore (yes, that Howard Shore, who bears more responsibility for the gravitas of Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth movies than he gets credit for).

Love doesn’t hurt after all — not for Saul and Caprice.

Those who take Crimes of the Future too seriously will probably be frustrated with it. It’s a whimsical meditation, not a culture-war argument. Its characters exist to cultivate questions, not to inspire fans and sequels. Those who expect a typical narrative arc that culminates in an adrenalin-rush finale will wonder if there’s been a mistake and the projectionist skipped the final reel. (Wow… there’s some film vocabulary that doesn’t make sense anymore!) But Cronenberg isn’t here to play to expectations. He’s always been comfortable with, even aggressively curious about, ambiguity. It’s a fearless and unsettlingly honest investigation of the same question that drove the first Jurassic Park movie: What happens when human beings let ambitions get ahead of conscience?

And, almost as if there’s something in the air, Crimes arrives at the same time as Kogonada’s extraordinary (and extraordinarily soft-spoken) futuristic sci-fi vision After Yang, another film in which characters “break open” the “core” of an experimental human. Both films provide gentler, more thoughtful ways of confronting audiences with the implications of technological advances, avoiding the flagrant alarmism of so many dystopian visions. They just might make us more content with the flawed bodies we have, less eager to meddle with what we’ve been given.

I emerged from this film laughing about the possibility of a new Crimes of the Future edition of Operation. Imagine a version of that beloved childhood game in which you have no idea what your tweezers will withdraw from that poor clown’s bodily cavities. You might find yourself wondering about the movie’s final moments: whether they represent someone “winning” at the game, or if someone has bumped the electric boundary and set off an alarm. Typically, that’s been seen as an error, a failure, a loss. But perhaps there’s a scarier possibility: What if we make ourselves believe that transgression is a virtue?

I failed to cite Cronenberg properly in my 2007 book Through a Screen Darkly, so I’m correcting that error here: Cronenberg’s words come from Chapter 4 of Cronenberg on Cronenberg.