‘Landscape with Invisible Hand’ Review: Weird Sci-Fi Comedy Set To Be A Cult Classic

Two teenagers market their romance to invading aliens who look like breadbaskets in this compelling, and very strange, allegory.

Asante Blackk and Kylie Rogers in Landscape With Invisible Hand. MGM

When you think of an alien invasion, the first images that come to mind are probably of violence and devastation, like something out of Independence Day. A technologically superior force from beyond our solar system arrives on our world, takes what they want, and kills whoever’s in their way. That’s certainly one way to do imperialism, but it’s not going to win you any popularity contests. In Landscape with Invisible Hand, written for the screen and directed by Cory Finley from the novel by M.T. Anderson, Earth has been conquered in a far more civilized manner — we’ve been “liberated” by an advanced alien race with whom we have no hope of competing economically. While nominally receiving the benefits of their generous patronage, humanity has gone broke, and their only hope of survival is to beg for scraps from the tables of aliens who look kind of like tables. Landscape with Invisible Hand is a cutting satire about economic imperialism, the commodification of culture, and the degrees to which human beings are forced to debase themselves in order to survive.

Directed by: Cory Finley
Written by: Cory Finley
Starring: Asante Blackk, Kylie Rogers, Tiffany Haddish
Running time: 105 mins.

Landscape employs a classic sci-fi role reversal, casting the bizarrely-shaped alien Vuuv as a galactic superpower and an American suburb as a poor, unfortunate land of the global South. Five years after first contact with the Vuvv, teenage artist Adam (Asante Blackk) is living in a world where even his elite attorney mother (Tiffany Haddish) is out of work and struggling to keep the lights on. But he is operating from a place of relative wealth — his new classmate Chloe (Kylie Rogers) and her family have been living out of their car. Generally kind-hearted but also smitten, Adam invites Chloe’s family to move into his basement, and soon young love blooms. And that’s a lucky thing, because romance happens to be the only commodity humans have to offer the Vuvv, who reproduce asexually and experience a different spectrum of emotions. To help make ends meet, Adam and Chloe begin broadcasting their courtship as a form of entertainment, but the need to curate the experience of their relationship to suit their audience’s expectations proves to be an unmanageable strain.

One of the Vuvv, the aliens in Landscape With Invisible Hand. MGM

Landscape with Invisible Hand is the sort of conceptual club sandwich that you’ll only find in an indie film based on a cult novel. (Imagine a major studio executive parsing this pitch, let alone greenlighting it.) There’s a lot to digest here, beyond its obvious allegory about self-righteous rich countries fetishizing, appropriating, and ultimately destroying foreign cultures via predatory business practices. The film also takes aim at the industry of social media influencers, and not from the usual angle of “These self-obsessed, do-nothing kids!” More than any other film I’ve seen, Landscape captures the modern drive to turn one’s entire life into “content” in order to compete in the modern market. As more and more jobs and opportunities are eliminated through automation and corporate consolidation, young people scramble to leverage the only thing they have that might not be replaceable by a machine — their very humanity. In the film’s world, packaging one’s life as entertainment is actually one of the more glamorous and dignified ways that a human might debase themselves to better appeal to the ruling class, and the grim alternatives will be equally familiar.

If you’ve noticed that I’m talking far more about messages and themes than about character, plot, or filmmaking, it’s because, for the most part, the ideas take center stage. The characters are exactly as complex or specific as the themes of the story demand, sympathetic eyes through which to experience (and make light of) the desperation of their world. That being said, these are complicated ideas to play with, so being vehicles for the film’s thought experiment doesn’t impair anyone’s performance. Asante Blakk balances youthful idealism, adolescent confusion, and the world-weariness that comes from a stressful childhood, while his counterpart Kylie Rogers embodies the tragedy of not having a childhood at all. Landscape gives Tiffany Haddish another opportunity to work her dramatic muscles as a mother trying to keep the respect of her children as she struggles to provide, but she shines brightest when playing off the absurd comedy of the Vuvv invasion.

The heft of Landscape’s social themes is lightened significantly by the outright silliness of the Vuvv themselves. Described vaguely in the novel as resembling coffee tables, the film extrapolates this into fleshy pink bread-boxes with flippers, eyestalks, and a mouth resembling human buttocks. In a Q&A following an advance screening of the film in Manhattan, Cory Finley expressed his desire to depict a truly alien-looking alien that couldn’t be easily compared to an earthly creature, and in this, the VFX team led by Erik de Boer (Okja) has absolutely succeeded. Their jagged flipper movements (they scrape their ribbed limbs against each other to communicate) and deadpan mechanically-translated dialog are funny almost every single time they’re on screen, even though it’s essentially the same gag over and over. Truly, these things could be Minions for irony-poisoned adults.

As it stands, however, this MGM-distributed indie appears to be getting the bare minimum of marketing, with promotion hindered, naturally, by the cast being unavailable for a press tour (Finlay acknowledged their absence and voiced his support for the strike during the NY screening). This weird R-rated comedy — with its timely and compelling story about our worsening world and the resilience we’ll all need to survive — seems destined to disappear amidst a crowded summer release slate. Still, with its competition for the weekend being the underwhelming Blue Beetle and Strays, there’s some hope that Landscape will catch the attention of grown-ups looking for something appealing at the cinema. If nothing else, it should find a well-deserved cult following when it hits streaming later this year.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.


‘Landscape with Invisible Hand’ Review: Weird Sci-Fi Comedy Set To Be A Cult Classic