What would life on Earth look like in a future where humans are still very much alive but no longer in charge? Landscape With Invisible Hand — directed by Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds, Bad Education) and based on the 2017 young adult novel by M.T. Anderson — depicts a depressed, dryly humorous society crumbling away at a steady pace. Little aliens called “the Vuvv” have landed and torpedoed the economy, leaving most humans either underemployed or out of work entirely. The wealthy have already abandoned the planet to live “up there” with the aliens, while everyone still on Earth is left to forage for what’s left of the money, land and food. Instead of fearsome creatures with horrifying lasers and military might, the Vuvv are tiny bureaucrats with no empathy for the poverty their soulless business practices have created.
Adam (Asante Blackk) and his family are essentially squatting in their own giant home, barely getting by. His mother, Beth (Tiffany Haddish), is an unemployed lawyer with a missing husband and an understandable chip on her shoulder. His sister, Natalie (Brooklynn MacKinzie), full of hope, is trying to grow produce in their empty pool. And his father (William Jackson Harper) went to California for work and never came back. With all this swirling around in his head, Adam deals with it through his artwork, painting about his life. His work is playful and imaginative, unconcerned with reflecting reality. And when he meets Chloe (Kylie Rogers), he’s found his first muse.
Landscape With Invisible Hand
The Bottom Line
Tiptoes around the tough questions.
Adam is so smitten, in fact, that he invites Chloe, her brother (Michael Gandolfini) and father (Josh Hamilton) to move into his basement so they won’t be in the street. The immediate tension between the two families seems like a small price to pay for young love at the end of the world. Adam and Chloe’s chemistry is sweet and playful, with Adam the more sensitive of the two. He yearns for normalcy in a society that no longer has time for it. But Chloe, increasingly worried about her family’s survival, brings Adam into a business arrangement that greatly raises the stakes of their relationship.
Their alien overlords don’t have sex or romance in their society, so they’re fascinated by human dating. So, as a way to make money, Chloe and Adam begin a “courtship broadcast” where they perform their love for alien viewers in space. It’s like turning their lives into a sitcom without the script; improvisation is essential. For a while, it works — the novelty of it all brings playfulness to their relationship. The money coming in supports both their families and things seem to be settling down. But soon Adam becomes troubled, as does the volatile living situation.
What begins as a polite, slightly tense cohabitation quickly devolves into class conflict, with the underlying racial implications going mostly unaddressed. The film is so afraid to say out loud that Chloe’s family is somewhat racist that it ends up side-stepping any opportunity to address the very real issue of white discomfort with Black success and prosperity. But even so, the absurdity of it is obvious. It’s the end of the world, and this white family still feels threatened by the money a Black family used to have. As a result, there is no desire to work together or combine the two families in any meaningful way. Perhaps that isn’t a story flaw — just simply how things would go regardless.
Landscape With Invisible Hand is more interested in a broader question: How can one be an artist in a society that undervalues and censors authentic work? It’s a question that becomes more and more pressing as business leaders gain more control of the arts. Adam is going through an accelerated version of what writers, filmmakers and artists are dealing with right now. As companies merge, jobs disappear, encouraging those with artistic minds to either sell out or change course entirely.
Finley excels at making a science fiction premise feel slight and mundane; the calmness of the invasion feels eerily plausible. The Vuvv are not unlike the wealthy class we already have now — using technological advancement as an excuse for the rapid destruction of empathy. It’s a blunt indictment of capitalism’s cruelty, which constantly asks us to pay for our freedom. And yet the film never fully commits to a darker tone, going for whimsy whenever things start to get tough for Adam. Dramatic scenes of abandonment and heartbreak play out matter-of-factly, feeling more like act breaks than genuine moments of emotion.
Even so, Blackk has so much feeling in his eyes, filling the screen with his melancholy. The other major selling point of the film are Adam’s paintings, deployed beautifully to show the passage of time through his point of view. In many ways, they are the most alive part of the movie. They show us a perspective that can become easily lost in a society that values technological advancement over human expression.