This is a Jordan Peele film for women – an obvious editorial (incel nostalgia for the clearcut sexual divide of the 1950s is a bad thing) wrapped up with brilliantly-crafted yet third-hand, curiously-unfelt genre tropes … acted at a range of registers from subtle to duff … with a plot that just doesn’t glue together, enlivened by everything from classic Hollywood or burlesque dance numbers to a Bond-style car chase (with an on-the-nose Aston-Martin) through a candy-coloured desert. Yes, it reminds me a lot of The Stepford Wives – the Bryan Forbes one, of course – but I also kept flashing back to the little-loved remake of The Prisoner, which has a very similar aesthetic (and big reveal). It even comes along after WandaVision has trod the same well-manicured suburban path.
Despite all that, it’s an enjoyable film, just not as zeitgeisty as it would like to be, ie: in the same league as The Stepford Wives (a film that flopped on release), The Matrix or The Truman Show in terms of science fiction satire. In the desert planned community of Victory, everything is fine – wives sip cocktails, clean homes, shop and gossip, and greet husbands home from work with sumptuous meals and tons of sex (often at the same time). But women don’t drive. Men drive off to work every day at a mystery plant and won’t say what it is they do. Community leader Frank (Chris Pine) comes across like Jordan Peterson’s self-image, making soothing pro-traditional marriage speeches. Alice (Florence Pugh) notes that her former friend Margaret (KiKi Layne) has cracked up and asks too many questions – and willingly goes along with making a pariah of her, so she’s carted off by minions in scarlet jumpsuits. Then Alice spots a plane crash and makes the forbidden desert trip, and comes to question her own husband (Harry Styles), best friend (director Olivia Wilde) and the whole town.
Katie Silberman’s script, from a story by Carey and Shane Van Dyke (they wrote the Asylum’s Day the Earth Stood Still ripoff The Day the Earth Stopped and Chernobyl Diaries, so may have envisioned something more disposable), uses a recurrent glitch as a plot structure … it’s implied that Margaret has already gone through the same arc as Alice, and we see the same damn thing happening over again with possibly a different outcome because Florence Pugh is a star (ie: white woman can do what black woman can’t). It’s suggested that Frank, equivalent of the Patrick O’Neal character in The Stepford Wives, selects one of the wives to be a rebel and prods them through this storyline to keep his Evil Plan on its toes. Whatever, it’s just random story-generation within a richly-imagined, -designed, -costumed, -scored, and -photographed pocket universe.
Oddly, Wilde’s character – as per a late revelation – is more interesting than the ostensible lead, though she’s yet another incarnation of the suddenly-everywhere spectre of bereft-of-children Wanda Maximoff. It’s a sign of the strength of a thesis when a story can allow a moment where the villain’s point of view is expressed sincerely – the basement crack-up scene in The Stepfather makes that movie more than just a Mad Bad Dad flick – and Wilde’s Bunny might have prompted that … but instead we just get Pine being fiendish, as if his Captain Kirk William Shatner were regressing to The Intruder William Shatner and Styles playing whiny foul-up-reincarnated-as-fantasy figure.