‘Landscape with Invisible Hand’: Aliens snoop on teens’ romance in uneven sci-fi comedy

Repetitive story doesn’t live up to the film’s intriguingly bleak vision of occupied Earth.

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Chloe (Kylie Rogers) suggests to Adam (Asante Blackk) that they make money by letting Earth’s alien rulers monitor their budding courtship in “Landscape With Invisible Hand.”

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Usually when aliens invade our planet, we manage to pull off the upset and survive after sustaining some serious damage, because we have resilient MOVIE STARS leading the charge and they don’t, e.g., “War of the Worlds,” “Independence Day,” “Signs,” various MCU and DC movies, etc., etc. Our record is definitely over .500.

Occasionally, though, the invaders succeed and take over the planet, which is the case in writer-director Cory Finley’s ambitious and admirably bold but ultimately repetitive and underwhelming “Landscape with Invisible Hand.” Based on the novel of the same name by M.T. Anderson, the third effort from the talented Finley (“Thoroughbreds,” “Bad Education”) features some impressively staged sequences and terrific performances, but awkwardly straddles the fence between biting social commentary and dark humor, never quite finding its footing and ending on a curiously flat note.

Framed by paintings from the talented young artist Adam (Asante Blackk) from his childhood through his teen years that flesh out the back story, “Landscape” is set primarily in the year 2036, some five years after aliens had “first contact,” as they put it, and gained control of Earth not through force but via superior intellect and technology that has caused mass unemployment. The aliens, known as the Vuvv, are gross-looking creatures that resemble microwave-sized wads of spit-out bubble gum with four bendy legs. Upper-class humans have taken servient positions in the giant floating cities that hover above Earth so they can live relatively comfortable lives, while the bulk of the population down below tries to scrape by while eating horrible, processed food and working whatever jobs they can find.

‘Landscape With Invisible Hand’

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Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures presents a film written and directed by Cory Finley, based on the novel by M.T. Anderson. Running time: 105 minutes. Rated R (for language and brief violent content). Opens Thursday at local theaters.

It’s a bleak, bleak landscape, and things are getting darker as the Vuvv permeate every facet of human culture and history, replacing it with their own teachings and language. (When a high school teacher is the latest educator to be rendered useless by Vuvv technology, he blows his brains out in the school parking lot, and one student remarks, “This sort of thing is getting way too common.”)

Adam lives with his mother Beth (Tiffany Haddish), a former lawyer, and his sister Nettie (Brooklynn MacKinzie) in a spacious but crumbling home where Beth is struggling to pay the bills and keep the lights on. (Though “Landscape” is set in the near future, the technology looks like it’s from the late 1990s, from the TV to the landline to the computer.) When a plucky new kid named Chloe Marsh (Kylie Rogers) arrives at school, Adam is instantly smitten and impulsively invites Chloe and her family, who have been living in their car, to stay with his family. Enter Chloe’s temperamental, edgy dad (Josh Hamilton) and her sulking and quite terrible brother (Michael Gandolfini). Tensions between the two families escalate quickly, and the Marsh family is relegated to the basement, setting up another level of social commentary about the haves and the have-nots.

The Vuvv can eavesdrop on the lives of humans, and communicate with them, when the humans attach Bluetooth-type devices to their temples. They’re particularly interested in one facet of the human experience that is foreign to their culture — you guessed it, that would be love. Chloe suggests to Adam that they take their budding courtship public, i.e., broadcast it to the Vuvv in a kind of OnlyFans, pay-per-view type deal, and for a while the plan works great — but if you’re faking it and not truly in love, the Vuvvs will figure it out and you’ll be in big trouble.

This arrangement sets off a strange chain of events that includes a Vuvv marrying a human and insisting they have an old-fashioned, husband-dominant relationship straight out of a 1950s sitcom. It’s all quite unsettling and plays like a comedic episode of “The Twilight Zone.” (A quick appearance by Adam’s absentee father, played by William Jackson Harper, has a similarly eerie tone. Alas, like many of the subplots in “Landscape,” it’s just sort of … there. There’s little or no true resolution.)

With an intrusive, zither-laced score further hammering home the 1950s sci-fi vibe, “Landscape with Invisible Hand” becomes increasingly preachy down the home stretch, when Adam wows the Vuvv with a gorgeous mural he paints on the side of his now shuttered-school, and the Vuvv offer Adam millions to create similar works at various locales in outer space. It’s an offer that will save Adam’s family, but he’ll have to make compromises with his art. What to do, what to do.

Asante Blackk turns in a winning and empathetic performance as the sensitive and smart Adam, but far too many other characters, including the entire Marsh family, are thinly drawn and not particularly interesting. This is a film with some big ideas that winds up leaving a smallish impression.

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