One of pop culture’s favorite locales of late is a secluded resort for the rich and irresponsible, a landscape defined by both gorgeous vistas and cutting satire. Think The White Lotus, Glass Onion, the culinary getaway of The Menu, or the doomed luxury yacht of Triangle of Sadness. It’s the perfect setting for a story to deride opulent foolishness, give some wealthy villains their comeuppance, and critique the churning, ever-widening gyre between the haves and have-nots. But all of the aforementioned works, no matter how bluntly parodic, have one foot in reality, whereas Brandon Cronenberg’s new sci-fi horror, Infinity Pool, takes that familiar domain and saturates it with wild, lurid futurism.
In his nascent filmmaking career, Cronenberg (son of the gnarly Canadian master David) has concentrated on unsettling interactions between technology and the human body. His 2020 breakthrough, Possessor, imagined a world where people could be taken over and puppeteered from afar, a process that was both spiritually disturbing and physically damaging. Infinity Pool offers an equally disquieting invention: human cloning, via a pool of red goo, used expressly for punishment.
Infinity Pool is set in the fictional country of Li Tolqa, about which the audience learns very little; we know only that it is beautiful and that the resort where James Foster (played by Alexander Skarsgård) and his wife, Em (Cleopatra Coleman), are staying is the kind that few people can afford. James is a novelist in search of inspiration. He has traveled to a hoity-toity tourist trap, but at first, he finds little beyond fancy booze and free-flowing privilege. James then runs into a flirty but frenzied actor named Gabi (Mia Goth), who gets him to lower his inhibitions. Their goofy liaison morphs into something darker when James kills a pedestrian in a nighttime hit-and-run.
Fear not, the local government assures him: Any punishment can be imposed on his clone, one that officials will create and then execute, as long as he agrees to witness the rendering of that judgment. The conceit is perverse, multilayered, and yucky. And it carries some provocative commentary on late capitalism. Li Tolqa’s technology is dizzyingly advanced, spitting out a perfect James copy with ease, but its use is ethically twisted, not to mention existentially worrisome. After all, how can James be sure that his clone is being murdered, and not his original self?
That ambiguity is inherent to the copy-pasted brain, a sci-fi notion that’s been popular in recent years. Cronenberg leaves those quandaries of identity for the audience to mull over. James soon gets addicted to the nihilistic mayhem afforded by this technology; he (and similarly amoral pals such as Gabi) can behave recklessly and leave the punishment to their clones. The question of which James is the authentic one gets lost fairly quickly, but the character never had much of a personality to begin with. Much of the thrust behind Cronenberg’s gory satire is that cloning such a soulless man is like dividing the number zero.
The premise of Infinity Pool was deliciously nasty enough to keep me invested for most of its nearly two-hour running time. Cronenberg has an obvious gift for making blood and viscera look inventive, even as they splatter across the screen repeatedly. But the film can’t outdo its initial hook; James and Gabi’s evil affair loses its shock value after the deeply upsetting execution of James’s first clone. Infinity Pool spends a lot of time watching vapid elites get murdered over and over again. At a certain point, every last bit of allegory has been killed as well.