How bold must we be in our quest to stay true to ourselves, and what would we do to keep our families intact? These are but two of the thought-provoking themes that writer/director Cory Finley explores to winning ends in Landscape with Invisible Hand, which lands in theaters Friday, Aug. 18. They are two ideologies that sometimes work in direct conflict with each other. But what if they didn’t have to? Landscape with Invisible Hand is an offbeat comedy with heavy doses of spunk and sweetness. It’s a daring picture for Finley, who takes the premise of aliens ruling Earth in the not-too-distant future as a backdrop to explore one family’s journey to keep it all together.
But there’s a much deeper message here. The filmmakers use the alien invasion plot — something that typically winds up being the sole focus of a film of that ilk — as a way to explore the inner stirrings of our internal landscapes and the ways in which we find the courage to be authentic and real. No matter what. Even when aliens have taken over Earth.
Teens in a Different Kind of Love
Cory Finley hails from St. Louis, Missouri. He launched his storytelling career as a playwright before leaping into film with Thoroughbreds, which was adapted from his own stage play. His second feature, Bad Education, premiered on HBO and garnered an Emmy Award in 2020.
Continuing on with his tradition of effectively capturing the depth of the human condition and, perhaps, some of its absurdity, Landscape with Invisible Hand allows Finley to expand some his unique concepts and have them play out in a broader Ideological space. This film is bold, often quirky, yet never feels over the top.
At the heart of this story is a talented teenage artist named Adam (Asante Blackk of When They See Us). He’s creative, driven, and wants to make it as an artist. That proves to be tricky, considering the fact that aliens have created a bureaucratic rule and their advanced technology allows them to monitor humans as if they were in one big reality show. More on that in a moment.
AI has taken over the planet and many citizens are unemployed, barely making it, or worse. Adam’s mother, Beth, (Tiffany Haddish in a grounded performance) can no longer be a lawyer, so she takes on odd jobs to keep Adam and her daughter Natalie (Brooklynn MacKinzie) safe and intact.
Then Adam is lured into a life-saving idea. He’s been bonding with Chloe (Yellowstone’s Kylie Rogers) and she convinces him to have their “love story” become the focal point of a quasi-social media show that aliens will pay them to participate in. These cats are intrigued with human mating rituals and relationship patterns. So, all good?
One catch. Adam and Chloe must be in love, and if they’re not, well, you can see how high the stakes get here. Onward the duo goes, however, their emotions tracked every step of the way. Thing is, teenage emotions are fluid. Maybe Adam and Chloe’s bond wasn’t as deep as they initially thought. Blackk and Rogers turn in solid performances here playing two characters with their own set of woes — Adam with his homelife and artwork, Chloe with her own family drama. How all that plays out is downright engaging to experience.
Landscape Paints a Vivid Portrait
Another plot point factors into the story. When Adam discovers that Chloe is homeless, he invites her entire family to live in his basement. There’s Chloe’s father (Josh Hamilton) and brother (Michael Gandolfini in a great role). Beth is irked initially, but caves in. In the meantime, the aliens rule above the land in hovering landscape cutouts.
To that end, the production design and VFX are exceptional throughout this film. The aliens depicted here are crafted with imagination and from an artistic standpoint are exceptional. Part blob, part slug, they communicate through a series of clicks that are picked up by a universal translator. The filmmaker takes his time to deliver this big reveal, and when the story finds Beth coming face to face with the alien overlord, these scenes play out in absurdist fashion. To Finley’s credit, all the scenes featuring aliens are never played up to be ridiculous, even though the premise of those specific scenes are so over the top.
What happens after Beth’s encounter with the aliens directly affects her life, and that of her children, sending the movie into a charming last stretch. Something to savor: Every actor in this film shines. Haddish, Blackk, and Rogers, in particular, add nuance and depth to their roles.
Based on the book by M.T. Anderson, which was a treasure to dive into, the film is backed by producers who obviously believe in what Finley wanted to say. Brad Pitt, Tiffany Haddish, and four other executive producers are attached to Landscape with Invisible Hand, which somehow elevate it beyond being a quasi-indie standout. Gandolfini is a scene stealer playing a grumpy bro, too.
The film’s final 15 minutes should thrill all the “dreamers” out there, but mostly Landscape with Invisible Hand does one thing very well. It paints a vivid portrait without forcing its hand. With an eccentric premise, Finley manages to deliver a moving sci-fi comedy that has just enough edge and heart to thoroughly win you over.
Landscape with Invisible Hand, from MGM, hits theaters Aug. 18. You can watch the trailer below: