I don’t know about you, but anytime I think of aliens coming to planet Earth, it’s with a bit of staunch cautious optimism. Maybe it will be as hopeful as the end of 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but if there’s anything the Sci-Fi genre has done, it shows us things have more potential to go more the way of Independence Day and War of the Worlds. This is why Landscape with Invisible Hand has an intriguing premise at first – it does away with the world-fearing calamities of laser beams and spaceships and replaces that immediacy with a slow-burn sense of ironic comedy and dread.
If you think about it, one of humans' greatest fears is that we will be rendered obsolete – a common theme in science fiction narratives concerning A.I. technology. However, picture a society where alien advancements and capitalism team up to make life easier for humankind. It may sound like the utopia we’ve all been waiting for. Still, writer/director Cory Finley’s adaptation of M.T. Anderson’s 2017 novel of the same name is bleaker than anyone could imagine.
The sweet life is reserved for those who can pay for it and prove beneficial to the Vuuu, the alien species that are more or less calling the shots. On the surface, many family homes are reduced to rubble, high-ranking positions like lawyers and accountants are forced to take lower-tier jobs in service to the Vuuu, and school is basically a Vuuu 101 tutorial where teachers are rendered obsolete. Within all this craziness is a teenager named Adam (Asante Blackk), who has a natural talent for the arts.
Finley uses Adam’s painting as a storytelling device throughout Landscape to show the progression of the Wuvv takeover and how the makeup of his own family changed. Adam’s father (played by William Jackson Harper) had to go away on many business ventures to try to make money. One day at school, Adam meets Chloe (Kylie Rogers), a new student whose one of many families has fallen on hard times and is looking for a play to stay. Without telling his mother, Beth (played by Tiffany Haddish), he provides their basement to accommodate Chloe’s family. From there, a budding romance starts to grow between the two – but this isn’t just going the way of your conventional teen romance film. The state of societal factors has much to say about how this plays out.
See, the Vuuu themselves cannot experience love – so they outsource it as entertainment. That means humans on the ground volunteer for what is called a “courtship broadcast.” It’s a live stream where couples allow the Vuuu to observe what they do with their spouses, and in turn, the couples get tips. Chloe has an idea for her and Adam to do these streams with great financial success – even at this point, Adam starts to feel weird about it. Think about it: the need to make money is so intrusive that something like a relationship's natural progression has to be monetized.
Landscape with Invisible Hand tackles a lot of interesting concepts about how far people will go to achieve prosperity and how fragile our economic system is. While it’s not an entirely new story, when you factor aliens into the mix – there’s a layer to convey this vehicle. As the film continues, there’s a lot it wants to say in a short time – to which it needs more runway to unpack. As Adam and Chloe come into more money, resentment from both families starts to grow. This exhibits the classicism within the old world, with possible hints of racism (Adam is Black, Chloe is white). Chloe’s brother Hunter (Michael Gandolfini) throws a lot of vitriol toward Beth’s character, which initially feels like anger towards her being a lawyer. As the film progresses, it seems something deeper is at the surface – something the film is not too comfortable diving into.
Things get into slightly lighter territory when the Vuuu decides to sue Adam and Chloe for not exhibiting “authentic” love – given how they have studied the phenomenon. It’s interesting that a species that never felt love knows what it looks like – yet doesn’t realize falling out of love and trying to work through it does occur. The audience gets to see what the Vuuu looks like – a slug-type creature that claws ask as a sort of sign language only to get translated by a digital voice. When one decides to join the families for closer observation, the film turns into a half-sitcom/half-critique on conventional family values and roles.
All this is fine and well – especially interjecting extraterrestrial life into the fold. Even as Landscape with Invisible Hand’s ambitions takes the journey in many different paths, there’s still a voice that is an undercurrent that the natural order of perseverance will somehow cut through the worst.