‘Landscape with Invisible Hand’ Review: Sci-Fi Tale Mostly Works
This review was originally part of our coverage for the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
In the first three films of Cory Finley’s filmography, we’ve seen three different takes on high school. With Thoroughbreds, we saw a friendship between two teenagers that explored class and murder, and in Bad Education, Hugh Jackman starred as a superintendent whose embezzlement scheme grew out of self-importance and flawed justifications. But with Finley’s latest film, Landscape with Invisible Hand, we get by far Finley’s most absurd and ambitious film centered around a high school, one that involves gross aliens, economic inequality, reality television, and art as an act of resistance. Landscape with Invisible Hand is a lot of things, which makes it a bit of a mess, but at least it’s an intriguing mess.
Also written by Finley and adapted from M. T. Anderson’s book of the same name, Landscape with Invisible Hand takes us to the year 2036, five years after humans had their first contact with aliens. It didn’t take long before humans gave up and accepted their fate at the hands of the new invading race, allowing the Vuvv aliens species to control everything from our economy to our schools. While there are some humans that live in cities that fly overhead, most humans are left back on earth, struggling to survive under this new leadership, as jobs and resources are scarce.
In this new world, we meet Adam Costello (Asante Blackk), an aspiring artist in high school who takes a liking to the new girl in town, Chloe Marsh (Kylie Rogers). Chloe and her family are homeless, so Adam invites Chloe’s family to stay at his home, without asking permission from his mom (Tiffany Haddish). While the Costello family might not get along with Chloe’s dad (Josh Hamilton) or her brother (Michael Gandolfini), Adam and Chloe start a relationship, which they decide to monetize when they broadcast their dates to the aliens—who like to watch human relationships as their own strange take on reality television.
But this is just one of many directions this story of humans and aliens goes down, as we see the many ways the aliens have impacted the lives of humans, how the Costello and Marsh families end up getting at each other’s throats with financial and racial implications, and the bonds that are brought together and torn apart due to their involvement in the world. Anderson created a fascinating world ready to be explored, and while we do get to learn more about what the world of 2036 is like throughout the various paths this story goes down, it’s also a world that leaves you wanting to learn even more.
Finley brings this world to life with a humdrum reality, as the world has sort of given in, and most people are just going through the motions. There’s a bleakness to this existence that makes this seem like yup, if this were to happen, this is what it would be like—not a scream, but a whimper. Finley also presents a very real sense of danger to this world early on, as it’s clear that depression and suffering are rampant in a major way, even when the aliens aren’t making their domination directly known.
While this is a promising premise and universe that is being presented, Finley’s screenplay goes in too many directions to do any of these storylines the justice they deserve. Landscape with Invisible Hand eventually reveals itself to be about integrity in art, and how Adam wants to present his art to the world, and yet, this isn’t exactly a through line in the rest of the film. While these various detours through the story are interesting in the questions they raise, and the humorous situations they bring about, it ends up making Landscape with Invisible Hand occasionally feel like a collection of short stories set in this world, without much of a primary thesis for the story to focus on.
Thankfully, there’s enough meat on these bones to make Finley’s odd experiment work. In fact, Finley’s take on this world is almost so unusual and unexpected that it’s hard not to admire it simply based on its audacity alone. The cast also helps keep this train on the rails, as Blackk makes for a solid lead here, still trying to maintain what semblance of himself he can in a world that has already accepted its fate. Haddish also gets a story that allows her to play around in a comedic narrative, but one that’s more toned down than she might be used to. The Marsh family also brings plenty of broad comedy to this tale, as the family that will do anything to succeed in this new normal. And while it’s clear that Finley probably didn’t have a major budget for this eccentric little film, he still makes the world of Landscape with Invisible Hand look impressive, with its peculiar alien race that looks unlike any other, and technology that seems both alien and not that far from our own reality.
Landscape with Invisible Hand is certainly a mixed bag that isn’t nearly as tight as Finley’s previous work, but the bold attempt to make something so unique and singular makes this wild story ultimately work. Landscape with Invisible Hand is throwing a lot at the wall to see what sticks, but there’s enough that does to make this, at the very least, a spectacle worth seeing for yourself.
Landscape with Invisible Hand is in theaters now.