300 years ago, British textile workers terrified that the industrial revolution would cost them their jobs began to smash machines. Some were executed, but they’d correctly seen the future — and if they could have looked ahead to Duncan Jones’ Mute, the Luddites would have thrilled, or at least nodded with terse pleasure, to see a quiet Amish man (Alexander Skarsgård) in a near-sci-fi Germany continue to nobly shun technology. In a city of flying cars and drone shawarma delivery, Skarsgård’s Leo has never touched a cell phone. And he’s not unique. As Jones pans across overwhelmingly glittery and computerized sidewalks and swimming pools, we spot other resistant primitives in bonnets and suspenders embracing ye olden ways like a 2018 Brooklynite who’s taken up canning. Progress — especially capitalism marketed as progress — has a way of making people revolt.
Leo is an unassumingly radical character in a genre that tends to drool over shiny bleeps until they kill. But Leo isn’t a radical. He’s just a bartender, the right job for someone who carries himself like a parish priest. (Even today, half the people in the profession could be time travelers from a century ago worshipping giant blocks of ice.) And like a priest, Leo can’t tell anyone’s secrets. As a boy, his throat was slashed by a boat propeller and his religious mother refused to let newfangled doctors stitch his larynx. “God will heal him,” she insists in a flashback. Interpret his silence as you will. You might think his disability would make him more prone to text — boy, could he make use of an emoji — but instead this “techtard,” as bullies call him, insists on scribbling his thoughts on paper and letting emotions drip from his wet blue eyes.
At the club where Leo pours drinks, customers like Paul Rudd’s handlebar mustachioed Cactus Bill coolly watch robot strippers shake their metal missiles. “A real sexy hood ornament,” Bill drolls. He’s a single dad, backroom mob surgeon, and stranded American trying to make his way back across the Atlantic. There’s a war going somewhere, maybe a few wars — we catch a glimpse of a headline about New Kandahar, presumably in Afghanistan — but every character in Jones and Michael Robert Johnson’s script is too focused on fighting for scraps to fill us in on the planet.