Why 'Mute' Is a Missed Opportunity for Netflix

Mute Still Alexander Skarsgard - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Netflix
Weeks after the streamer surprised with 'The Cloverfield Paradox,' it has released another splashy sci-fi film that doesn't live up to its potential.

[This story contains spoilers for Mute.]

Netflix began the month of February by surprising millions of people on Super Bowl Sunday with the unexpected unveiling of its new sci-fi feature acquisition, The Cloverfield Paradox. This weekend, as the month comes to a close, the streamer is releasing another original sci-fi film, Duncan Jones' futuristic noir drama Mute. When Netflix revealed that it was premiering The Cloverfield Paradox the same night it confirmed it had picked the film up from Paramount, the shock was muted by the immediately mixed-to-negative word of mouth from those viewers who stuck around after the big game ended to watch the film. Mute hasn't received quite the same buildup, but it may leave viewers similarly dissatisfied.

Jones, who co-wrote the film with Michael Robert Johnson, has said in multiple interviews that if it wasn't for Netflix, Mute simply wouldn't exist. In many respects, the development and release of Mute should be an ideal for both the streaming service and cinephiles. Here's a film built from the ground up by a distinctive filmmaker whose earlier, smaller-budget efforts Moon and Source Code are deservedly championed as remarkable and entertaining sci-fi entries. And, unlike The Cloverfield Paradox, here's a case of Netflix working with a singular artist as opposed to simply picking up something a bigger studio wants to get rid of, a cinematic hand-me-down. But while the circumstances surrounding the creation of Mute are encouraging, the end result is baffling.

Set decades from now in Berlin, Mute is primarily focused on Leo (Alexander Skarsgard), a mute Amish bartender who's desperately in love with his girlfriend, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), a waitress at the colorful nightclub where he works. One night, Naadirah goes missing, and Leo begins to realize how much he doesn't know about his true love as he tries to figure out her whereabouts. Meanwhile, Leo keeps crossing paths with two brash and dangerous American surgeons (Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux), who have a deeper and darker connection to Naadirah than the silent lead might've thought.

Early on in Mute, one of the most surprising flourishes in the design of the future Berlin is how similar it looks, on what must be a deliberate level, to the seminal 1982 sci-fi noir Blade Runner. Many shots here almost mirror that Ridley Scott film, from expansive images of the city skyline at night to the heady mix of rainy streets, neon lights, flying vehicles and a grim hero watching everything unfold on the ground. The part of the film that feels most divorced from this — and from much of Leo's storyline until the final third — is focused on the Rudd and Theroux characters, known as Cactus and Duck (an homage to the Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland characters in M*A*S*H). While it's a somewhat pleasant surprise to see Rudd and Theroux play so vastly against type — Rudd, in particular, is playing a much nastier character than is his wont, a far cry from Ant-Man — it's less enjoyable to realize that Mute feels too predictable and procedural in its twists and turns, many of which are evident in the first 20 minutes.

As Netflix ramps up its production of original films — aiming to release a whopping 80 this year alone — movies like Mute feel like a frustrating missed opportunity. On one hand, it's easy to understand why Jones had to work with the streaming service to get his long-gestating vision realized. Many of the world-building elements of Mute and the generally striking if familiar design of Berlin, along with the notion of having a lead character who doesn't talk, would likely have alienated a bigger studio, and an indie distributor might not have had the budget to help him turn his dream into a reality. But whatever originality exists in Mute is curdled by the sense that many of its storytelling aspects feel overly familiar; the setting feels reminiscent of plenty of sci-fi films, not just Blade Runner or last year's sequel, and much of the detective story has the air of a modern TV procedural.

If Netflix wants its original films to stand out, in theory it needs to make more films like Duncan Jones' Mute. Where The Cloverfield Paradox felt like a series of disconnected scenes in search of a way to tie into the larger Cloverfield franchise, Mute is a film defined by its director, who worked for over a decade to see it become more than just a pipe dream. Some parts of Mute do work, such as some of the unavoidably striking images that Jones and his cinematographer, Gary Shaw, craft. But the film as a whole feels like the product of a studio that greenlights movies without being too invested in what those movies end up looking like. Mute, in the end, has a lot of encouraging ingredients, but it ends up being unsatisfying, like a lot of Netflix Original Films.