Passionate filmmakers are good, because without passion you have hackwork. And so, QED, passion projects are good, because they are the place where filmmakers devote the greatest part of their energy, creativity, and soul.

On the other hand, passion projects can also trigger a kind of blindness from artists so deeply in love with their ideas that they can't see when those ideas are just bad, and thus we arrive at Mute. Duncan Jones has been talking this one up ever since his amazing directorial debut, Moon, in 2009, and he's kept the dream alive for almost a decade, during which time he made the very fun and reasonably brainy Source Code, and also he was responsible for Warcraft. Throughout, Moon remained the gold standard - one of the earliest and best of the boom of astonishingly smart, creatively low-budget sci-fi films that have made the 2010s such an enormous pleasure for genre fans - and the idea that Jones had another one of those waiting inside him seemed like the most promising thing you could possibly wish for. Mute even seemed to be connected in the writer-director's head with Moon! And so the news that Jones screenplay, passed over by just about everybody, was going to see the light of day thanks to Netflix, was close to the most exciting news that this particular genre fan could imagine.

Well, it turns out that all those studios kept passing on Mute because it sucked. I know for a rock-solid fact that this was Jones's great passion project, but with the finished product glibly playing out before my eyes, I cannot begin to fathom why. At least you can see with a holy terror of a boondoggle like Superman IV: The Quest for Peace what made Christopher Reeve so inappropriately attached to it (the film-deadening anti-nuke message scenes). Mute, if you were not quite sure it was the director's baby, would seem like the most pedestrian, lazy sort of by-the-numbers sci-fi film imaginable.

Basically, take Blade Runner. No, really, take the hell out of Blade Runner. It is hard to imagine a film whose visual design more openly depends on that 1982 masterpiece for every last one of its ideas. Not even Blade Runner 2049 is so helplessly indebted to Blade Runner. But then - and here's where it starts to get tricky - make Blade Runner look a whole lot worse; I think not having any rain is the big reason for that. Then, add to Blade Runner's neon-saturated future world with a vintage '40s film noir plot, a secondary plot that takes up almost as much screen time about a horrible pair of psychopaths that the film finds utterly adorable and hilarious, or at least seems to. And involves a seemingly endless chain of jokes about how one of the psychopaths is a pedophile who wants to rape the other one's preteen daughter. I say "endless chain", but it probably only happened twice. Still, twice. And then send this all barreling towards an unbearably sour climax that trades the snarky nihilism on display for most of the film for a real vein of brutal, acidic cruelty. The whole experience is like eating a mayonnaise-on-white-bread sandwich, and then the last bite is full of dead hornets.

Anyway, Mute, the story of an Amish bartender who suffered a boating accident that left him mute as a child, and now works in a seedy club among the many seedy clubs that litter the film's glamorous vision of '70s/'80s Berlin in the 2050s (the film is dedicated to Jones's late father David Jones, better known to you and me as David Bowie, and I cannot shake the horrified feeling that this is somehow Duncan's half-assed, incoherent tribute to his dad's iconic "Berlin Trilogy" of albums). This bartender, Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), had a girlfriend he adored named Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), who has gone missing. With nothing much else in his life worth mentioning, Leo goes a-hunting for her. And this, at least, is perfectly sturdy detective fiction. Nothing special, and the film's vague attempts at portraying Neo-Berlin as a hotspot of cosmopolitanism, immigration, sexual experimentation, great noisy music, and fluid identities don't add all that much, though this provides at least some kind of interesting backdrop. That it all exists in a carbon copy of Blade Runner adds absolutely nothing at all, and my very urgent belief is that Mute would have been better if it were set in the actual Berlin of the actual 1970s (and, if I recall correctly, at various points in its development, Jones indicated that this was not going to be science fiction). Still, you can see where there's something here, satisfying if totally generic.

The other plot, with rogue American doctors Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux), is certainly more wild, and makes much more effective use of the setting. It's also dreadful - not through any fault of the actors, who give their all to the roles (which are basically the Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland roles from Robert Altman's MASH, almost explicitly: the actors' make-up and even some line deliveries make the conclusion feel nearly inescapable, and a moment when one compliments the other for having a "hawk eye" seals the deal), and for all that I care for not one thing that Theroux is called upon to do in the movie, the fact remains that he is its one beautiful, shining source of life. Skarsgård, bless him, lacks the subtlety and facial flexibility to do the silent acting that the film requires if we're to take Leo as anything but a cog in a noir machine. But Rudd and Theroux, they at least have some energy and vitality.

The plots are self-evidently due to intersect, which takes them nearly all of the film's 126 minutes to do. Given that it goes from mildly boring to actively shitty when that happens, it's probably for the best that so much of the film is spinning its wheels. That is, at any rate, the cardinal sin of Mute: it takes a florid setting, and two florid genres (film noir, and the banter-driven, ambiguously homoerotic misadventures of a Tarantinoesque pair of colorful monsters), and does nothing with them. Ordinarily, I'm first in line for a film that portrays a dynamically-designed setting, but Mute's world, beyond how lazily it copies the single most obvious model imaginable, doesn't seem to inform anything else. This film takes place in a moody neon nighttime hell basically just for the fun of it, and it's a neon we've probably all seen by this point - certainly, if we are the people inclined to hunt down Mute. And while the events of Leo's story might have made for a good yarn if they took place over 70 minutes and were filmed on the streets of Los Angeles by a Poverty Row studio in 1951, this film lacks the nasty lightness of foot that could make its pulpy, mean-spirited thrills sing rather than grumble. It's more a disappointment for its wasted promise than a truly bad movie, but it's such a waste, and I pray that, now Jones has gotten it out of his system, he can go back to making good movies. Because frankly, the sobering discovery that he had an even worse film in him than Warcraft wasn't something I was prepared for.