Forget the alien invasion of sneaky infiltration or bombastic bombings of national landmarks. Landscape With Invisible Hand unfurls a science fiction story that plays out more like an unnerving yet amusing extraterrestrial gentrification.
Imagine a not-so-distant future in which alien overlords have descended. But rather than conquering or catering to politicians, they bought out humanity by teaming up with corporations, promising new tech and new heights of status. Specifically: picturesque utopias that hover over Earth’s surface and treat everything beneath like a dump site. The dumped-upon world below is where Landscape With Invisible Hand paints a coming-of-age story that is uniquely entrancing and thrillingly unpredictable.
What’s Landscape With Invisible Hand about?
Adapted by M.T. Anderson’s novel of the same name,(Opens in a new window) Landscape With Invisible Hand centers on Adam Campbell (Asante Blackk), a Black American teenager scraping by on an Earth now run by an alien race known as Vuvv. While those living in a literally elevated version of gated communities relish innovations and wealth, those below — like the Campbell family — are scraping by as millions of jobs are made obsolete by Vuvv technology. Adam and his lawyer mom (Tiffany Haddish) scavenge for any work they can find, while his little sister tries growing her own food, sick of the nutrient-rich but unappetizing cubes that have become standard for lower-class households. But their lives change forever when Adam falls in love.
Within hours of being beguiled by new kid in school Chloe Marsh (Kylie Rogers), Adam has suggested she and her unhoused family move into his basement. Tensions rise between two households crowded underneath the same roof. But there’s a reprieve when Chloe and Adam decide to turn their budding romance into a live stream for the aliens’ entertainment. These “courtship broadcasts” give the Vuvv — who produce asexually and have no concept of romantic relationships — a vicarious thrill. For the Marsh and Campbell families, this means big bucks, financial security, and real food. But how can young love withstand not only the prying eyes of alien gawkers but also the pressure to support their families through a futuristically intrusive brand of reality TV?
Landscape With Invisible Hand elegantly tells a complicated sci-fi story.
Writer/director Corey Finley, who won praise for the teen thriller Thoroughbreds, mindfully sprinkles details around this character-centered drama. For instance, rather than an aggressive news montage about the alien invasion, the progress of it is depicted over the opening credits through artwork by Adam. A crayon drawing here, a pencil sketch there; each details Earth before and then after the Vuvv appeared. Throughout the film, delicate chapter breaks are created by close-ups of his work. Each drawing not only pulls focus to a moment that was profound for our protagonist, but also elegantly explores his emerging understanding of this world and his role in it. While Adam may struggle to communicate how he feels in words, his drawings speak volumes.
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As for the Vuvv, an educational video at school plays to explain to us and the students who they are and generally what their deal is. However, it’s swiftly revealed to be cheerful propaganda that ruthlessly ignores the widespread poverty and despair their global buyout has caused.
Pockets of this impact pop up in casual conversations about 3D-printed meat, a field of debris that includes discarded lacrosse sticks, and the shrug that a publicly performed suicide elicits. The second act will showcase sci-fi spectacles like spaceships, glossy tech, and even the mysterious Vuvv, who are accurately described as looking like “gooey coffee tables.” To Finley’s credit, the humble budget of his film doesn’t detract from the tangibility of these out-of-this-world elements. However, this is firmly soft sci-fi. So the aliens and their tech — while intriguing — are not the point. This is all about Adam.
Asante Blackk stands strong as a leading man.
With this bustling backdrop of alien invasion, human tragedy, exploitation, first loves, artistic inspiration, and families in conflict, Landscape With Invisible Hand is unapologetically about a young Black man finding himself in a world littered with adversity. Whether at home or at school, with his girlfriend, his family, or a Vuvv who is playing tourist, Adam is repeatedly challenged to determine his own values and worth. Will he be like the neurosurgeon who left their vocation behind to become a Vuvv chauffeur? Will he risk being ostracized by rebelling against the Vuvv’s demands for feel-good entertainment? What does it mean to thrive versus survive in a world where the haves treat the have-nots as novelty?
Blackk, who’s previously appeared in such heralded shows as This Is Us and When They See Us, shoulders the weight of these worries with a solid stance and bright eyes. Even when Adam is at a loss for words, Blackk’s gaze cries out about the pressure, the pain, and even the joy that collides in Adam’s journey. Rogers matches him as Chloe, a bubbly ingenue when the Vuvv are watching who slides into a strained stance of angst when they’re not — when she can be real, and really worried. Haddish brings some smirking humor as a no-nonsense mom, while Josh Hamilton — as Chloe’s desperate dad — gamely plays the fool as demanded (by the movie and the Vuvv). Altogether, the ensemble cast crafts a world that feels eerily familiar, even with the slimy extraterrestrials popping up to cause headaches and societal shudderings.
The intriguing sci-fi details that Finley drops like breadcrumbs lead us into the curious adventure in Landscape With Invisible Hand. The performances ground the heartache that thrums at its core, while theremin music trembles in its score, giving a sense of vulnerability and alien audio. But perhaps what’s most exhilarating about Finley’s latest is that — unless you’ve read the book — there’s no way to predict what might come next or where Adam might go. The future may seem bleak, but its specifics feel wildly — enthrallingly — uncertain.
So, we look to the drawings dropped along the way to get a sense of what is to come. Wisely, Finley doesn’t leave us with easy answers. He does, however, leave us with a soft sci-fi gem that is fantastic, fun, and thrillingly fucked up.
Landscape With Invisible Hand was reviewed out of its world premiere at Sundance 2023.
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