Netflix's lumbering sci-fi 'Mute' ends up lost for words

Review: Flashes of cyberpunk imagination and Paul Rudd's M*A*S*H-tache aren't enough to give the film a voice.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films | TV | Movies | Television | Technology
Richard Trenholm
3 min read
Keith Bernstein / Netflix

There's a fun moment in the new cyberpunk noir flick "Mute" when the hero gets a clue from an Amazon-style delivery drone. Later, he gets another lead from a smart fridge.

These are just some of the neat little sci-fi details in the fun futurism of the film from "Moon" and "Source Code" director Duncan Jones. Sadly, the interesting cyberpunk backdrop isn't paired with a story that delivers any excitement, suspense or thrills to speak of. 

Available now on Netflix, "Mute" is set in a near-future Berlin, buzzed by flying cars and strobing neon signs with cybergoth strippers and pole-dancing robots crowding the streets. So far, so "Blade Runner". But Jones and co-writer Michael Robert Johnson construct an interesting backstory to this otherwise familiar cyberpunk landscape, conjuring a Weimar-esque decadent city infested with American soldiers who've deserted amid a troop surge. Neat visual touches include the aforementioned delivery drones, a pimp in cracked kabuki makeup hustling with comically unsexy sex robots, and menacing street gangs with black-painted faces and whited-out eyes.

Sadly we get only brief glimpses of these imaginative world-building flourishes. Instead, the story focuses on a familiar story of a man tracking down a missing woman and keeps returning to the least interesting character in the story.


Alexander Skarsgård plays Leo (right), is a voiceless man in a voice-activated world.

Keith Bernstein / Netflix

That character is Leo, a looming hulk of a bartender rendered mute by his religious parents' refusal to accept medical intervention after a childhood accident. Played by Alexander Skarsgård, he's a man out of time, bound by the ideology of the past in a world where the future's constantly in your face. He's a voiceless man in a voice-activated world, unable to communicate with the machines that run things.

While that's a nice idea, Leo is tough to engage with as a central character. A delicate soul who expresses himself through drawings and carvings of animals, Leo is more of an inanimate object than the talking vending machines and snack-delivering drones that fill the Berlin streets.

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A strong, silent protagonist can work: There's a lovely moment when Jones injects drama into the simple action of a pencil breaking, which prevents Leo from communicating with the people around him. Such moments are rare, though. Actions speak louder than words, yet there's precious little action to be found in this leisurely amble through the underworld of the future.

Leo is mixed up with gangsters, but we never get much of a sense of how dangerous they are. They just amble around voicing vague threats, with ineffectual gangsters making our innocent hero appear to be the most dangerous player in the game. The stately pace shuffles unnecessarily past the two hour-mark, and it doesn't help that the story spends a good half hour on the great big clanging cliche of the hero beefing with a nightclub VIP who gets too handsy with his girlfriend.

The lack of urgency is summed up by Jones' choices in the scene when our silent avenger finally, finally gets around to meting out some of the ol' ultraviolence. It's a static, unmoving long shot. You get the feeling that Jones was aiming for the propulsiveness of "Drive" but left the handbrake on.

Luckily, things get into gear when Paul Rudd pops up. Rudd plays sleazy military surgeon Cactus Bill, performing backstreet patch-up jobs on local criminals in exchange for "Casablanca"-style exit papers. Kitted out with a flamboyant moustache, Hawaiian shirts and a martini glass while juggling assorted scams and schemes, Rudd's M*A*S*H-style mad medico is way more fun and compelling than the taciturn Leo.

This daffy doctor is at the centre of various underworld subplots including military police hunting deserters, inter-gang squabbles and a mobile hacker-collective headed by a criminally underused Noel Clarke. However, those tempting subplots drift out of view as soon as they surface. Strangely, even Leo's primary quest gets sidelined, culminating in an unceremonious and uninspired ending. 

Despite being set in a world with flashes of imaginative, nerdy detail and bags of potential, "Mute" winds up lost for words.

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