Movie Reviews - 2014 postsWednesday August 13, 2014
Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
We know how the roller coaster goes. Our heroes, misfits all, fight more with each other than with the bad guys, but eventually, through a series of adventures and misadventures, they abandon the more pungent aspects of their personalities for the greater good and come together for the final, big battle, with swirling dervishes going pew-pew-pew, and, somehow, against impossible odds ... win!
We know this going in. The roller coaster, being a roller coaster, can’t alter its tracks. So the question becomes: Do they make the ride fun?
Writer-director James Gunn (“The Specials,” “Super”), and writer Nicole Perlman (this), and some very talented cast members, led by Chris Pratt (“Parks and Recreation”), make Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” a lot of fun.
Who's BFF? (Before Fantastic Four)
It’s all about the characters, and these characters are fairly unique. Count ‘em off:
- Peter Quill (Pratt): Terran, outlaw, raconteur, who digs one-hit wonders of the 1970s.
- Drax (Dave Bautista): massively muscled and tattooed like a Maori warrior, he doesn’t understand metaphor; so he’s like the opposite of the Tamarians.
- Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper): a raccoon bounty hunter ready to sink his teeth into any fight.
- Groot (voice of Vin Diesel): his companion, a calm, giant tree, who can only say three words and only in this order: “I am Groot.”
- Gamora (Zoe Saldana): a sexy, ass-kicking bad girl.
OK, so maybe we’ve seen Gamora before. Like all the time. And Quill is a bit like Han Solo with a better taste in girls and a worse one in music. Groot is the vegetation version of Chewbacca, while Rocket is, you know, a pint-sized Wolverine. Sans cigar. Maybe they’re saving it for the sequel.
But they’re unique enough. Most of them came out of the trippy, 1970s-era Marvel comics universe, the long-haired, cosmic-looking, drug-taking wave after Stan and Jack. Jim Starlin gave us both Gamora (in 1975) and, with Mike Friedrich, Drax the Destroyer (in 1973). Rocket was Bill Mantlo and Keith Giffen’s 1976 homage to the Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon,” while Steve Engelhart’s interest in astrology led to the creation of Peter Quill in 1976. Only Groot came earlier, pre-Silver Age, 1960. He was one of those “Tales to Astonish” outerspace villains forever imperiling earthlings in the days before the Fantastic Four: Droom and Rommbu and Vandoom and Moomba. Stan was big on the “oo.”
They are, in the comic book world, what they are here: misfits and castoffs and second- or third- or 39th-tier players. But they were put together in 2008 for the second iteration of Guardians, which first failed as a concept in 1969. And boom. Stars. Here, too. Basically they’re a funnier, less superhero-y version of The Avengers. But they’re fighting who the Avengers will soon fight. Spoiler alert.
So one night in 1988, a boy, young Peter Quill, has a bummer of a night: 1) his mother dies, and 2) he’s abducted by a UFO. We next see him 26 years later on the planet Morag. By now he’s a rapscallion bounty hunter, who, like Indiana Jones, enters a cave in search of a precious object, but he doesn’t sweat it in the getting. The opposite. He kicks alien rodents out of the way while dancing to “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone, from his AWESOME MIX TAPE, VOL. 1, which is a cassette of great one-hit AM-radio wonders of the ’70s his mom gave him. He even uses one rodent as a mic. It’s a mix of new technology (spaceships) and old (Walkman). Not to mention old tunes. It’s the fear of the unknown subverted. Remember the creepiness of alien worlds in the first season of “Star Trek”? Now it ain’t no big thang. Now squiggly creatures are just props for our pop cultural miasma. We’re humans from Earth.
As soon as Quill holds the orb in his hand, though, armed men, led by Korath (Djimon Hounsou), come to take it from him, and we set the tone for the rest of the movie:
Korath: Who are you?
Quill (in close-up and with gravitas): Star-Lord.
Korath (perplexed): WHO???
Quill (whiny): I’m Star-Lord, man. Legendary outlaw? Forget it.
I love this bit. A lot. He’s a kid playing a game forced to reveal he’s just a kid. He’s an adult with an inflated sense of self-worth forced to own up to the inflation. Quill is a semi-joke here, and we identify; but he’ll soon be, you know, the other thing. The hero. The One. Bummer.
It’s a busy universe he saunters through. There’s a truce between the Kree and Xander, but a Kree faction, led by Ronan (Lee Pace), is outraged and wants to wage war. The orb will help him do this. It’s got an infinity stone in it. Remember the infinity stone? I think it’s what Loki had in “The Avengers.” I think. Either way, it gives the holder incredible powers. What kind of powers? Incredible ones. Quit asking.
On Xander, Quill can’t unload the orb, and is then pursued by bounty hunters Rocket and Groot, even as Gamora, adopted daughter of the evil Thanos, wants him for herself. All four wind up in prison where they meet Drax, who joins their motley crew, such as it is, since he wants revenge on Ronan. They break out in a not-bad scene, then take the orb to The Collector (Benicio del Toro, channeling Karl Lagerfeld), while Quill tries to romance Gamora by getting her to dance. She says she doesn’t. Then this exchange:
Quill: Well, on my planet, we have a legend about people like you. It's called Footloose. And in it, a great hero named Kevin Bacon teaches an entire city full of people with sticks up their butts that, dancing, well, is the greatest thing there is.
Gamora: (thoughtful pause) Who put the sticks up their butts?
This is the reason the movie works for me: lines like these. In prison, for example, after Rocket explains to Quill that Drax takes everything literally, that metaphors go over his head, Drax is quietly affronted. “Nothing goes over my head,” he says. “My reflexes are too fast. I would catch it.” Does it help that writer-director Gunn (who also played Minute Man, as in My-NOOT Man, in “The Specials”) started out doing superhero parodies? Is that why they hired him? Either way, it was a smart move. Either way, this is a movie with smart people behind it.
Then it all becomes more roller coastery. Ronan, already powerful, gets the infinity stone and becomes super powerful, and he and his minions attack Xander, and pew-pew-pew! The Guardians try to stop him and save the universe. Face to face, Quill distracts Ronan with “O-O-H Child” by The Five Stairsteps and some decidedly post-1980s dance moves (anachronism alert), then Ronan gets shot and the infinity stone is up for grabs. Quill dives for it in slow motion. It’s his! But it almost destroys him. But on the verge of breaking apart, Gamora, then Drax, then Rocket, grab onto him, and together, as a team, they survive. And win. They also survive (and win) because Peter Quill is only half human. The other half is immortal or something. And in the end, he becomes the hero he always imagined himself to be.
That’s fine, I guess. I just like the whiny adult/kid bit better. I like the popping of his pretentions. Because we’re a culture ready to have a few of its pretensions popped now and again.
Movie Review: Get On Up (2014)
I’d read somewhere that “Get On Up,” the biopic of James Brown starring Chadwick Boseman (“42”), and directed by Tate Taylor (“The Help”), was a by-the-numbers biopic. That’s true only if numbers go like this: 101, 57, 4, 44, 6. The movie jumps around from 1988 and the bizarre circumstances surrounding Brown’s arrest in Albany, Ga.; to 1968 and his tour of Vietnam; to 1939, when his mother (Viola Davis) abandons him in the South Carolina woods; to 1964 and the disrespect of having some nothing band, the Rolling Somethings, close his show; then back to ’39/’40 again; then back to the '60s. Like Billy Pilgrim, it has come unstuck in time.
That’s unique for a biopic, which makes the opening all the odder. We hear a big crowd, people chanting and stomping, then see Brown in his later years walking backstage before a show. Sound familiar? Of course it does. Not only is it the beginning of almost every music biopic ever made, it was parodied to perfection in the otherwise disappointing satire, “Walk Hard.” “You’re gonna have to give him a moment, son,” Cox’s right-hand man tells the stage manager. “Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he plays.”
Most music biopics are by-the-numbers in this way, too: hardscrabble beginnings, slow rise, white hot fame, drugs and/or overwork, fall, recovery, redemption, lessons learned. “Get On Up” starts this trajectory but veers sharply. The fall, such as it is, is caused more by hubris than drugs. And no lesson is really learned—certainly not by James Brown. In the end, he remains as imperious, and impervious, as ever.
Here’s a question: Does the movie consider him genius enough to justify this?
Boseman’s got the feeling
Kudos, by the way, to Chadwick Boseman. I think I first saw James Brown as parody—Eddie Murphy doing the celebrity hot tub bit on “Saturday Night Live”—and soon everyone was doing their version of Murphy doing James Brown. How tough it must be to bring to life someone who’s been so caricatured; who is so easy to caricature. But Boseman does it. He does it, interestingly, not by showing us, say, a quieter, more complex side of the man (see Michael Mann’s “Ali”), but by pushing further into the caricature. Brown was the imperious dervish onstage and off. He had a simple, blunt philosophy: Grab what you can, be what you are; there’s only you. Just don’t try to take the stage from him. Or his toilet. Or really anything of his. Or yours.
I was less impressed with the role of Ben Bart, Brown’s first manager. “They’ve got to stop giving Dan Aykroyd these parts,” Patricia said as we left the theater. Indeed. He brings little. Aykroyd makes a word or two sound pungently New York/Jewish, as Bart was, before we’re back to a clipped Chicago sound. Was there no Jewish actor available? Jeff Goldblum? Mandy Patinkin? Mila Kunis? And what is the role exactly? Recognize Brown’s talent, give him a stage, and step back? Supposedly Bart came up with the idea of using kids to promote Brown’s concerts, saving the Godfather of Soul thousands if not millions in promotion fees, but the movie gives this idea to Brown himself. Supposedly when Bart died of a heart attack Brown couldn’t be bothered to attend the funeral, but in the movie version he’s so distraught he not only shovels dirt onto the casket but keeps doing it, bereft, sobbing, until he’s pulled away. Why? Why did this one man mean so much to him when most everyone else meant so little? And did Bart manage Brown’s money, too? Is that why Brown has back-tax issues, or did they arise only after Bart’s death? The movie makes it seem Bart was the wise counselor but we never get any of this wise counsel.
If I knew too much of the history in Boseman’s last film, I know too little of it here, and was often confused. Yvonne Fair (a scrumptious Tika Sumpter) shows up on the tour bus to catcalls from the band, shuts them down, and is then highlighted onstage as if in a silent battle with an audience member for Brown’s attention. Except Brown barely gives her a look. Question: Was the woman in the audience, Dee Dee (Jill Scott), already Mrs. James Brown or did that come later? Is this where they met? And if James never focused on Yvonne, why does the movie?
The movie, to its credit, doesn’t ignore what an asshole Brown was. He’s beats Dee Dee, pushes and insults his band, undercuts his best friend Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis, MLK in “The Help”). He’s a poor payer-backer. Byrd gets Brown out of prison, and sets him up with his band; but when the recording studio wants Brown alone, the Famous Flames, Byrd included, walk out. Brown lets them.
So when does Byrd return? Do we ever find out? One of the more vocal members of the next James Brown band, Maceo Parker (Craig Robinson), asks Byrd, late at night at a bar, why he puts up with Brown’s shit. The answer? Byrd recognizes Brown’s genius. In seeing what Brown is, he realizes what he lacks, and why he’ll never be the star onstage. He’s Salieri to Brown’s Mozart, but a benevolent Salieri to an even more ego-driven Mozart. This should have been the focus of the movie, to be honest, but the movie only makes it the focus at the end. Long estranged, Brown, without apology, visits Byrd at his home in ’93; then Byrd and his wife go to the show, the comeback show, where Brown stops the funk mid-beat and sings a beautiful old gospel number. As a gift for his old friend? As a final imperious send off?
“Get On Up” is a not-bad, better-than-I-thought-it-would-be, warts-and-all approach to a music biopic. I just got the feeling (baby baby) that Tate Taylor thinks James Brown’s warts are beautiful, too.
Movie Review: Life Itself (2014)
When do you finally give up? When they take your ability to move? When they take your speech, your jaw, your looks, your ability to eat and drink? When they leave you with a flap of yawning, scarred flesh below your upper jaw and send you back out into the world? For Roger Ebert, forever film critic for The Chicago Sun-Times, as Gene Siskel, his partner for more than two contentious decades on “Sneak Previews,” etc., is forever film critic for The Chicago Tribune, the answer is: none of the above. He took all of this and kept going. But near the end of “Life Itself,” or life itself, we find out what breaks a man even as willful as Roger Ebert.
It’s not a hagiography. It’s important to point that out. “He is a nice guy,” one of Roger’s bar buddies from the 1970s replies to the documentarian, before adding with a smile, “but he’s not that nice.”
And he’s not. He’s fiercely competitive, full of himself, at times shockingly humorless. He was a raconteur but was he a good listener? He listened to the movies and then held forth about the movies. He was kind to kids, and young filmmakers whose work impressed him (Errol Morris, Ramin Bahrani, Ava Duvernay), and old filmmakers whose work impressed him (Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog). I would argue he was too kind to black cinema, or almost any movie that starred black people, but the doc doesn’t get into that. If it did, it would most likely spin it positively: How Roger was a champion of black cinema. It would mention, as this article mentions, the movies that topped his year-end list: “The Color Purple” in 1985 (eh), “Do the Right Thing” in 1989 (yes), “Malcolm X” in 1992 (let me double-check), “Eve Bayou” in 1997 (haven’t seen it) and “Monster’s Ball” in 2001 (no). But it wouldn’t mention that he gave thumbs ups to, among others, “Cop and a Half,” for which Siskel reamed him, as well as Spike Lee’s worst movie, “She Hate Me.”
Oddly, the doc also doesn’t mention how he and Siskel championed the Chicago-area documentary “Hoop Dreams,” which Roger listed as not only the best film of 1994 but the best film of the entire 1990s. Why not? A moment of humility. The director of that doc, Steve James, is the director of this doc.
Most of the time anyway. There’s a great, early scene that, despite its subject matter, is pretty funny. It’s about five months before Roger’s death. He’s in his hospital room with his assistant Carol, his step daughter, a nurse, and off camera Steve makes a casual joke. Roger responds, in that Steve-Hawking-style voice software, “I do the jokes around here.” Then, despite being physically helpless, he talks up his lack of control in the way that control freaks so. Of the women in the room: “I do what they tell me to do.” When someone asks a question about the doc, he says, “Steve is the director.” Almost immediately, though, he starts giving direction. “Steve, shoot yourself in the mirror,” he says. Steve obliges. Why not? He knows a good moment when he sees it.
James’ doc is both tough and moving, straightforward and complicated. Its transitions are about perfect. It keeps giving us Roger’s life story before returning us to the hospital room, or the physical therapy room, or the painful trip home for two days before pneumonia forces him back to the hospital room.
He was a journalist before he was a movie critic. As a child he created the “Washington Street News” is his hometown of Urbana, Ill., and delivered it around his neighborhood. He was editor in chief of his high school and college newspapers and wrote moving accounts of the big issues of the day: the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.; the assassination of JFK. He went to Chicago for grad school but wound up at the Sun-Times, the working class newspaper, and within five months was its movie critic. It wasn’t a coveted gig. Before Roger arrived, most journalists there wrote under the nom de plume Mae Tinee, or matinee, but his arrival was propitious. He was young and American movies were about to go through a decade-long youth movement: “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Graduate,” “Easy Rider,” et al. The studio era had ended and the summer blockbuster era hadn’t yet begun; in this interregnum a variety of very good movies appeared.
He was a Chicagoan above all. He was both brash and earthy, a heavy drinker at the corner bar, O’Rourke’s, until he stopped for good in 1979. After his Pulitzer in ’75, he got offers from bigger cities with bigger newspapers—Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post in particular—but he turned them all down. His excuse? “I’m not going to learn new streets,” he said.
I heard more than read Roger, of course, but the reviews we get here (of “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Cries and Whispers”) are spot-on: personal but all-encompassing. They remind me of how unnecessarily mired in the details I get. Like here.
It takes Gene Siskel a while to arrive but when he does, he does it with a twinkle in his eye. They were opposites in many ways, not just physically but emotionally, but both thrived on competition, and neither was more competitive than with the other. I would’ve liked a rapid compendium of some of their thumbs ups/downs. Did Siskel truly dislike “Apocalypse Now”? It didn’t wind up on his top 10 list for 1979, though it topped Roger’s list. Did Roger really dismiss “Full Metal Jacket”? Same deal, but No. 2 for Siskel that year. They argued over Vietnam War movies the way the rest of the country argued over the Vietnam War. But the doc points out they argued over everything.
Their rise is interesting. They wound up in most markets except New York and L.A., which took a coastal attitude. Chicago? Really? One of the show’s producers said the studios went “from helping us, to hating us, to fearing us.” “Two thumbs up!” became the coin of the realm, and other critics blanched. Isn’t that simplistic? Reductive? Richard Schickel spouted off in “Film Comment” in 1991 but he shows up here as a talking head to own, or not, what he said.
But they used their power for good. Saving Errol Morris’ career alone would make it all worth it, but Martin Scorsese implies they helped save his life with an award they suggested and presented at the Toronto Film Festival in the mid-1980s. Then they trashed (deservedly) “The Color of Money.”
They died in opposite ways, too. Siskel was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, told no one, not even Roger, and passed away quickly at the age of 53. A few years later, Roger was diagnosed with thyroid cancer but hung on for 10 years. He revealed his jawless face to the world on the cover of Esquire magazine in 2010. He made this doc with Steve James. He kept going.
So what finally stopped this willful man? Back in the hospital for pneumonia, he finally sounds defeated. “I’m finished,” he writes James. His hands are swollen so he can’t type, so he can’t write. Take away everything but that. But they took away that, too.
“Life Itself” is powerful, moving, funny, and often tough to watch. I felt trepidation every time we returned to the present and the flap of skin below the jaw. I also disagreed with the doc almost immediately. These are the first words we hear. It’s Roger:
We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.
Empathy? To me, movies are like machines that generate wish fulfillment and fantasy. They generate dreams of power and glory. They allow us, for a few hours in the dark, and for a short time after we walk into the light, to pretend to be stronger and sexier and braver than we actually are. They lie to us at 24 frames a second.
But the above quote is true for the best movies anyway. It’s also true for this one. I’d give it two thumbs up if I could.
Movie Review: Non-Stop (2014)
I can’t imagine the Federal Air Marshal Service is too pleased with this movie. Its hero, Bill Marks (Liam Neeson), is an Air Marshal, but he’s also a chain-smoking, depressive alcoholic who hates to fly. Nice combo. We actually see him boozing it up before he gets on the plane (i.e., before he starts his job of protecting us), then he needs Julianne Moore to hold his hand during takeoff, then he smokes in the airplane bathroom. Twice. Plus he’s fairly bumbling and inept throughout. He’s bad, for example, at explaining pertinent information to his superiors. Like how there’s a bomb on board. Ten years earlier, he was a New York City cop but apparently got canned for incompetence. So of course the FAMS snapped him up. Because it’s only national security.
“Non-Stop” is such an odd movie. It does a few things right but so many overwhelming things wrong. Its plot doesn’t quite mesh. It keeps stretching its connective tissue until it snaps. It doesn’t know what year it is.
Here’s an example of not knowing what year it is. Halfway though the movie, Marks, identified as an Air Marshal, is trying to find a hijacker/terrorist on a flight over the Atlantic, but he gets no cooperation. From anyone. Almost every passenger on board isn’t worried about their safety; they’re worried about their civil rights. They keeps calling him a fascist and “Big Brother.” It’s as if it’s the 1960s. It’s as if they’d never seen planes flown into tall buildings.
OK, story. Shortly after the hand-holding takeoff, Marks starts getting taunting messages on his BlackBerry from another passenger about how unless $150 million is deposited in such-and-such an account someone on the plane will die every 20 minutes. So what does he do? Looks around a bit. Confers with a flight attendant. Confers with the other Air Marshal on board, a man named Hammond (Anson Mount). Then he kills him.
That’s not a bad bit, actually. Hammond, with debts, has been bribed into taking a briefcase full of cocaine onto the flight—we later discover there’s a bomb beneath all that powder—and he thinks Marks knows and freaks. I also like how he dies: In a fight in the close quarters of the airplane bathroom. Of course it’s been Hollywoodized. Neeson himself barely fits in an airplane bathroom; good luck getting someone else in there with him. (Ladies? Volunteers?)
But at least it’s interesting. The villain says someone on the plane will die every 20 minutes and the hero is responsible for the first death. He’s also responsible for the third. The second? Well, no. Instead, he accuses others of that murder. He keeps doing this: making enemies of allies. He’s unsubtle in his investigation. He blunders. He doesn’t tell the whole story when it would be so easy to tell the whole story. So people begin to suspect him—like his idiotic superior, Agent Marenick (Shea Whigham), who tells him the terrorist’s bank account is registered in Marks’ name. Ah ha! J’accuse!
One, why would Marks leave the bank account in his name? Two, if you suspect Marks of being that stupid, why would you be so stupid as to tell him?
At least there are a few suspects in the movie:
- Jen Summers, the redhead who wants the window seat, and who is perhaps too interested in what’s going on with Marks (Julianne Moore).
- The NY cop with a quick temper (Corey Stoll, who deserves better roles)
- The confused flight attendant from “Downton Abbey” (Michelle Dockery)
- The flight attendant from “12 Years a Slave” (Lupita Nyong’o), who is given nothing to do but be black and pretty
- The annoying black guy in first class (Zack White)
- The annoying black guy in coach (Corey Hawkins)
- The annoyed middle-aged white dude (Frank Deal)
- The skittish white dude who asked Marks for a light at the beginning of the movie (Scoot McNairy)
- The Muslim dude with a cellphone (Omar Metwally)
- The cute, scared girl (Quinn McColgan)
Right, not all are suspects. Not the girl, and not the Muslim dude (too obvious), and not the NY cop (too close to 9/11), although Stoll makes the man dick enough that I wondered. That’s what kept me going: wondering. Attempting to figure out who and why.
The hijackers turn out to be the skittish white dude—the first suspected and discarded—and the annoying black guy from first class. They’re soldiers who signed up after 9/11 but were pushed off into a meaningless war, and they think our national security is a joke. Like Marks. The drunk. (Hammond goes unmentioned.) So they’re going to make it look like Marks hijacked the plane and killed everyone on board to wake up the U.S. government and its people to national security issues.
Hey, isn’t this a win-win for them? If they succeed, they’ve proven their point. If Marks stops them, as he does (spoiler alert), well, I guess they were wrong. The skittish white dude should’ve said this. He should’ve said, “Either way, I win.” But no.
Instead, Marks is simply the most put-upon Air Marshal ever. The passengers turn on him, his doofus superior relieves him of duty, and the media blares his villainy across the networks based on no information whatsoever. Then they exonerate him in two seconds after the plane crashlands in Reykjavik. It’s as if they’ve been watching the movie with us. Even Richard Jewell had to wait a few days.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra also directed Neeson in “Unknown,” and this one suffers from some of the same problems. It wants to be a 1970s-style thriller but it also wants the heroic happy ending, and it’s tough to have both. Either Marks is a boozing, depressive incompetent ... or he’s the man we watch struggling against all odds for 90 minutes to save everyone. Put another way, the terrorists actually have a point. Marks really shouldn’t be an Air Marshal. Everyone was lucky to get out alive.
“Non-Stop” is basically another “‘Die Hard’ in a ...” movie—close quarters, hostages, indirect communication between hero and villain—but you know what I miss in these movies that the original “Die Hard” had? The hero taunting the villain. “Eeeh! Sorry Hans, wrong guess. Would you like to go for Double Jeopardy where the scores can really change?” Instead, we get the opposite: the criminal mastermind who is always three steps ahead of the hero, taunting the hero because of ... whatever. A personal grudge. No one has a sense of humor. About anything. What I wouldn’t give for a fly in the ointment, a monkey in the wrench, a pain in the ass.
Movie Review: Snowpiercer (2014)
It’s a gritty, gray, dystopian future, right, and we need someone to play the saddled architect of the revolution. So why not the actor who played Winston Smith, the most saddled character from the greatest dystopian story of all, “1984”? Welcome, John Hurt.
And to lead the revolution? Why not Captain America? Nice to see you, Chris Evans.
And as the overconfident, grand manipulator of this mad dreamscape? Why not Ed Harris, the overconfident, grand manipulator of “The Truman Show”?
Welcome, all. And actors? Know your place.
Nice going, scientists
Quick question: What’s the most unthinkable thing that happens in “Snowpiercer”? That we inadvertently cause another Ice Age? That the remnants of humanity are forced onto a train that is divided not only into cars but classes, with the majority, dirty faced and Dickensian, stuffed into the tail section without rights, or, for a time, food? So that they are forced to eat the weak? Including babies?
No. The most unthinkable thing that happens in “Snowpiercer” is that somehow humanity gets together and enacts a scientific solution to global warming this year. That’s optimistic. May I introduce Korean director Bong Joon-ho (“The Host,” “Mother”) to our do-nothing GOP-led U.S. Congress? Most of those guys don’t even believe in global warming.
But in the movie, sure, we do it. We all get together and seed the clouds with CW-7 to counteract global warming. And ... Oops. Instead of a slight correction we plunge the Earth into a new Ice Age, during which everything on the planet dies. Nice going, scientists. The only ones left are the people on the supertrain. Is it called the Snowpiercer? Either way, it was started by a man named Wilford before the whole CW-7 experiment as a self-sustaining, global train ride, and now, 17 years later, it’s our last, best hope. But of course it’s been turned into an awful, dystopian nightmare: haves and have nots. A metaphor for our time.
We begin in the tail section, where armed cops show up and count off the rabble. Once your row is called you’re supposed to take a knee, but one man doesn’t: Curtis (Evans). He’s not being heroically rebellious but simply counting how long it takes for the traincar doors to close—so how much time they’ll need when they foment their revolution. But now isn’t the time. “When is the time?” Edgar (Jamie Bell), his right-hand man, asks. “Soon,” Curtis replies.
He’s a reluctant leader. He thinks everyone should follow Gilliam (John Hurt) instead. Because he was named for Terry Gilliam? Because Hurt once played Winston Smith? Mostly because Curtis feels unworthy. We’ll get to that later.
First some draconian violence. In the first-class cars, they need a violinist, and a man offers he and his wife. But they only need one, so they take him and break her nose. Because they can. They also need kids, and they take two: one from Tanya (Octavia Spencer), who gets a black eye, and one from Andrew (Ewen Bremner), who, in the struggle, manages to throw a shoe at the departing, yellow-clad official, Claude (Emma Levie). For that, amidst a long, drawn-out metaphor from Mason (a marvelous Tilda Swinton, channeling Margaret Thatcher) on how everything has its place, both shoes and people—“I belong to the front, you belong to the tail”—Andrew’s arm is forced outside the train and into the lifeless cold. Seven minutes later, when it’s brought back, it’s frozen solid. Then the police take turns bashing it off with sledgehammers.
So you see the need for revolution.
It starts sooner than I’d anticipated. Claude calls the guns “useless,” Curtis surmises they no longer have bullets in them, and he proves his theory. Boom. Now the men and Octavia Spencer are moving car to car. What’s in the other cars? First, there’s solitary confinement chamber where they pick up Namgoong Minsoo (celebrated Korean actor, and star of “The Host,” Song Kang-ho), an engineer who knows how to open the train doors. He’s also got a bit of a drug problem—Krongle, industrial waste—but that’s how the revolutionaries control him. Meanwhile, his daughter, Yona (Ko Ah-sung), is a bit psychic. She can anticipate what’s behind a door before her father opens it. They don’t take advantage of this talent nearly enough, do they? They should rely on her more.
They also go through a kitchen—where their food, black, gelatinous “protein blocks,” are made from insects—a greenhouse, an aquarium, a sushi bar, a meat locker, and a kindergarten. They fight for every other car. They take Mason hostage, and eventually she’s killed. Edgar is killed and Gilliam summarily executed. Apparently they haven’t run out of bullets. Curtis doesn’t stop to consider this. Neither did I. The momentum is forward. It’s all leading to the car with the big “W” on it.
Babies taste best
To be honest, “Snowpiercer” is better and more engaging than I thought it would be. Some of the cars get silly—expensive dining with linen tablecloths, discos for the young—but we get some good heart-to-hearts. Or a heart-to-Hurt? Before he dies, Curtis confesses to Gilliam: “How can I lead if I have two good arms?” Gilliam has only one arm, and a peg leg. I assumed he lost others in the cold, or in battles, and that’s why Curtis feels unworthy. It’s worse than that. On the precipice of the W car, the sacred engine, the sustainer of all life on Earth, Curtis finally, tearfully confesses his crime. He tells Minsoo about when they all first got on the train, how Wilford’s soldiers took everything, and after a month they began to eat the weak.
“You know what I hate about myself?” he says. “I know what people taste like. I know babies taste best.”
That’s not the worst of it, either. Curtis talks about Gilliam’s heroic nature: how, when others were set to eat another baby, Gilliam stepped up, cut off his arm, and gave it to the crowd. Then others did the same with their arms. That’s reason #1 why Curtis feels bad that he has two good arms. Reason #2? He was the guy about to eat the baby. And the baby was Edgar.
Question, and not of the quick variety: Does what we learn inside the “W” car undercut this story? Because of course we get the big confrontation. It’s a movie, after all. Curtis bursts in, the last of the revolutionaries, and it’s just Wilford in there, good ol’ Ed Harris acting all Ed Harris-y, eating steak, drinking wine, complaining about how he’s a prisoner, too. And he has his own story to tell. Seems Gilliam was in on it. The whole thing. He was working with Wilford to cull the herd. The train is a delicate ecosystem and it needs balance, so every few years they have a revolution. Fewer folks, fewer mouths to feed, everyone’s happy. (Well, not everyone.) More, he, Wilford, wants Curtis to take over. It’s a dark, dystopian Willie Wonka moment. It doesn’t help that the missing kids are used to keep the engine running—replacing a small part that can’t otherwise be replaced. So Curtis is understandably torn. He bursts in as a man-of-action but is spun around and stupefied by a man of engineering. Because we all know that happens.
Actually, at this point, it becomes two stories: Curtis’ in the W car and Minsoo’s outside it. While Curtis is losing a hand trying to save Octavia Spencer’s boy, Minsoo and Yona are trying to blow off the door to the outside. Others have tried this in the past and frozen to death within sight of the train. Ah, but Minsoo has a theory. He sees a downed airplane every year, and every year he sees more of it. The world is finally warming up again. So why wait? Why not take drastic action now? He does. And the explosion triggers an avalanche that knocks the train off the tracks and kills everyone but Yona and Octavia Spencer’s boy. They walk out into the snow, in parkas, blinking in the sun. And atop the mountain they see a polar bear. Who runs down and eats them.
No. The polar bear is a sign: life continues. I guess it’s a sign that life has always continued, since I doubt Nature could’ve create a polar bear from scratch after 17 only years. But you get the idea. After all that dirt and dystopia, we get pure snow and ... I guess two people wandering around in it.
Again, “Snowpiercer” is better than I thought it would be, but what’s it all about, Alfie? What’s it saying? Don’t trust scientists? Don’t trust the 1% but don’t trust the revolutionaries, either? (Cf. “The Hunger Games.”) Don’t trust heroes, those baby eaters, but trust polar bears? It’s a fun story that stands on thin ice. Below it, there’s nothing there.
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard