Landscape With Invisible Hand paints an off-putting, unpredictable alien invasion picture that any fan of strange, thoughtful science fiction should seek out.
Have you ever been really looking forward to a movie, only to not know it was coming out until the actual day it came out? Sadly, I had that happen with Cory Finley’s third feature film, Landscape With Invisible Hand. Finley’s first two movies, 2018’s Thoroughbreds and 2020’s Bad Education, have made him one of my favorite new directors, and when I heard he was adapting a science-fiction book about aliens occupying the planet, I was instantly sold. But sadly, there’s been very little attention given to the film, so much so that I kept forgetting the release date. Which is a shame, because it’s definitely one of the best, most memorable films of the year.
Based on a book of the same name by M. T. Anderson, Landscape With Invisible Hand takes place in the near future after an alien race landed on Earth and, through “benevolent” means, have essentially taken it over. They’ve promised to share their advanced technology to make the world better, but they’ve rendered many jobs and institutions obsolete as a result. Financially struggling high school couple Adam (Asante Blackk) and Chloe (Kylie Rogers) realize they can document their relationship for the asexual aliens’ entertainment, making money for themselves and Adam’s mother Beth (Tiffany Haddish). But the constant surveillance strains their relationship, and things become complicated after the aliens become displeased with the broadcast.
When I say “things become complicated,” I’m deliberately being as vague as possible, because that is not all there is to this film. Every time you think you know where Landscape With Invisible Hand is going, it keeps shifting its gears and piling on the bizarreness that comes with each new development. Sure, the romantic broadcast is the focus for a decent chunk of the first act. But when that grows sour, the way out of the mess leads to an even stranger scenario that gets progressively more awkward … and then that goes down an even weirder route for a bit, only to result in an entirely new thread that comes to a head in the finale.
In a sense, I can see this constant fluctuation of plot focus being seen as a negative. Landscape With Invisible Hand seems to become a bit of a different story with every act that takes on a different area of the main family’s life. But that, for me, is part of what makes the film so intriguing. It’s a very unpredictable movie, and it lets you know early that you should prepare to go to strange places. I don’t mean to some extreme, shocking degree like Beau is Afraid, where Joaquin Phoenix’s dad turns out to literally be a total dick. It’s more of an awkward, unsettling type of strange, where you’re constantly on edge from the sensation that the situation could reach those greater extremes.
It’s never completely clear just how peaceful the aliens in Landscape With Invisible Hand are. They’re essentially our new overlords, but they reached that status peacefully. They seem fascinated by us instead of annoyed or bitter, but they clearly have the power to do something terrible if they wanted to. They don’t have any strong emotions, which means they probably won’t grow resentful or vengeful, but that also means they don’t have any empathy over their harmful actions. Their design is the perfect blend of silly and just off-putting enough to make it creepy when one of them gets confrontational. Just the image of an alien sitting comfortably on a couch in Adam’s home with the mindset that it owns the place is enough to generate nervous snickers. They also look like they have ass cheeks on their faces, so that was … someone’s choice.
But what’s really unnerving about these aliens is the impact they’ve had on the planet. All of their advanced technologies and means of distribution have instantly created a huge cultural and economic shift on the planet. The food humans eat is artificially created, to the point where it’s considered a big event to get “real” food (so it’s basically McDonald’s). A lot of people are put out of work because their skills are no longer required, and even a lot of school curricula is being replaced by the teachings of the alien race. The world isn’t anywhere close to some sort of apocalypse, but it’s slowly turning into a more desolate and unfamiliar place in which humanity as a whole can no longer truly thrive.
The parallels to real-world phenomena like gentrification and cultural appropriation are obvious but still clever. One of my favorite moments is when a human couple is trying to learn the alien language, but it’s physically impossible for them to make the required sounds. You can read a lot into how similar that is to someone struggling with the dialect of another language or the colloquialisms that are too far beyond their comprehension. The aliens also frequently treat humans as creatures to be studied or even pieces of reality-show-style entertainment, forcing Adam, Chloe, and eventually Beth to force the picturesque life their audiences want onto themselves, similarly to how often fiction sanitizes the troubles of real people.
Even the dangers of toxic traditionalism and ignorance weasel their way in. The aliens have taken a liking to the comforts of older human sitcoms that don’t always reflect modern values, and they try to recreate that sitcom life in ways I won’t dare ruin here. Except that not since WandaVision has a chipper sitcom ever seemed so eerie. Their responses to certain pieces of art or statements from humanity give us an uneasy uncertainty as to whether they’re genuinely ignorant or willfully dismissive of why humans are struggling under their reign.
This ties into another reason why I really like the different directions the story takes. Our main characters are hopping from one scenario to the next, but that’s happening because each attempt to make do with the lives they now lead ends up undercut by the aliens, forcing them into a new attempt. Then that attempt goes south, and they’re forced into the next. Each option keeps running dry, highlighting just how oppressive this new world is for those who were once at the top. The feeling persists right up to the melancholy ending, in which characters come to a bitter acceptance while trying to find what little light there is in an increasingly dark world.
I’d be lying, though, if I didn’t say I would have liked several story threads to be fleshed out more. Landscape With Invisible Hand is not a long movie, clocking in at about an hour and forty-five minutes … and I don’t think that’s quite enough time for how much happens in this story. Just when it looks like an uncomfortable situation is about to reach its exciting peak, a new wrinkle is thrown in to essentially cut it off. You still get the experiences and emotional responses you’d hope for with these setups, but they don’t feel like full experiences.
The acting from everyone is good. Asante Blackk gives a subdued, sympathetic edge to Adam, and Tiffany Haddish makes an absolute buffet out of her more dynamic material. As I typed this, I was honestly about to credit the performances of the CGI aliens … and while that makes me feel dumb, I also consider that a credit to how well-animated their very unique movements are and even how good the effects on them are. Once in a while they look fake, but for the most part, it feels like they’re actually there moving and interacting with everybody. Louise Ford and Lyle Vincent, Finley’s returning editor and cinematographer respectively, recapture the same cold, unnatural atmosphere that was slathered all over Thoroughbreds, and Michael Abels (the composer for all of Jordan Peele’s movies) delivers a twangy, futuristic score that I can only describe as whimsically melancholy.
A large handful of reviews for Landscape With Invisible Hand seem to be middling, and I somewhat understand why. The plot throws a lot into a modest running time, which doesn’t allow every beat to reach its full potential. But those beats are still really entertaining, thoughtful, and audaciously unsettling, no matter how deeply you want to read into the layers of commentary they provide. I can’t remember ever seeing an alien invasion movie that felt this tangibly real since Arrival, even if this has much more satirical tone (and admittedly isn’t as great as Arrival). Landscape With Invisible Hand is one of the freshest, most distinct films I’ve seen all year, and if you’re a fan of sci-fi, strange satire, or just audacious storytelling, this creates just the right landscape for you.
Landscape with Invisible Hand is now available to watch in select US theaters.