Snowpiercer has a cast filled to the brim with brilliant, entertaining actors and a director whose back catalogue is, for my money, closer to perfect than any other working director’s. Despite this, I didn’t go into it with high expectations, mostly due to some pretty dull trailers. And my fears were confirmed. Whereas Bong Joon-ho’s previous films are delightfully entertaining with complex themes so subtle that engaging with them is basically optional, Snowpiercer is as direct and hard to move around in as the train it takes place in. I can see how the stripped-down nature of the concept could seem like an exciting one for an action film; A train full of Earth’s last survivors where poor people live in squalor in the back and rich people live in decadence in the front, and the journey from one end to the other. It’s a concept that travels along with its plot, and has momentum built into it; It’s probably the most inherently action oriented concept for a movie since Speed. And the themes of class are sound, they’re astute and well constructed. But after seemingly endless monologues from multiple characters who exist only as mouthpieces for said themes, you start feeling sorry for the dead horse Boon-ho is beating long before the end of the movie. This is a movie where they dress Tilda Swinton, hamming it up like never before, like a cartoon character and then make her endlessly deliver dialogue like “We must occupy our pre-ordained position.” and “Know your place.” Stating this outright once would have been hand-holding, but practically all the dialogue in the film is merely restating it. Then you have to sit through Ed Harris explaining it all again like three or four more times.
Who can say why Joon-ho decided to abandon subtlety for Snowpiercer. It sure wasn’t for a wider appeal, not in his home country anyway. He’s basically the James Cameron of South Korea, helming many of the top-grossing films in their history. Was it a concession to the English speaking audience, this being his first movie primarily aimed at them? (If so, that blew up in his face- the US distributor was apparently worried that this movie wouldn’t play well domestically and crippled its distribution when Joon-ho wouldn’t let them re-edit it.) Did he just simply want to try something new? At the moment we don’t know, but it feels like the release of the Coen Brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty; A whiff so hard from someone previously so consistently excellent you can’t help but struggle for an explanation.
Adding insult to injury are the action scenes. The one or two that work, work because they’re excellent ideas, not because they’re presented especially thrillingly. The rest of the action scenes, the bulk of them, present us with no specific action, just signifiers of action; frames filled with people swinging objects at other people with no apparent effect or consequence. Noise. The action in The Host, the most action-oriented of Joon-ho’s previous films, worked as anti-action; It was a monster movie in broad daylight, everything happened slowly, there were very few surprises. It radiated subversive glee. In a movie as direct as Snowpiercer, if the action doesn’t carry the weight, the whole affair doesn’t land with a thud, it lands in a puff of air.
So there are a few hurdles the audience has to clear in order to enjoy this movie, but you couldn’t fault anyone for not being willing to clear them. The most predominant issue is that Beyond the Black Rainbow is all style, no substance. There’s no shortage of stunning photography on display here, and the filmmakers have absolutely nailed their chosen aesthetic and vague storytelling technique, but there’s no significant intellectual component to this that I was able to detect.
But if the style is gripping enough, a lack of content can sometimes be compensated for, at least somewhat. To that end, Beyond the Black Rainbow was, for me, mostly passable. The photography is stunning, with no shortage of tricks utilized and no subtlety left on the table. The compositions are striking, the color is bold, and the soundscape is like a rich painting. All of these things serve an aesthetic meant to resemble late 70’s/ early 80’s genre work, especially Kubrick’s.
But this type of extravagance is most effective when bolstering your investment in story, and I was left pretty cold here in that regard. I had trouble finding anything to invest myself in. The lead character is a distant mystery full of repressed fury who I was unable to identify with. The story surrounding him, revolving around a conceptually generic, menacing science institute, left little to wonder about. It’s seemingly sole subject, a young girl, might have been a good place to let the audience find their footing, but she has relatively little screen time. Only once she makes her escape did I start to become invested in the story, but it was too little too late.
Mostly, you are in awe of the filmmaking, but only in a way you can look at and respect, not in a way that is emotionally effective. There are a few powerful scenes, but they mostly work on a purely sensory level, triggering our instincts to tell us to be scared or disturbed. Only once does the movie manage to link the two, when the test subject learns the identity of the facility’s macabre guardian, and a connection is made. Other than that, this movie is for photography and 80’s genre film fetishists only, but they are bound to appreciate it.
There was an opportunity to make something really… well, good here. Like an actual good movie, a piece of literature, something Hollywood hasn’t produced in seemingly decades. That’s what I felt like we were being promised anyway. But that opportunity was completely passed up to make an average Hollywood sci-fi action movie. (Albeit an above average one, sure.) Here’s what went wrong. Exposition and mysteries, and their resulting payoff and answers, are doled out at a steady, droning pace leaving no room for the viewer to use their imagination, or even think at all really. It’s like being led through a fun house at a brisk pace, never being offered the chance to stop and enjoy any of the cool stuff you’re seeing. Not that anything here is particularly worth lingering on- all the design work in the film appears to have gone through some sort of personality extraction device, retaining none of the visceral nature of their H.R. Giger-designed inspiration. (He gets a nice, big credit at the end though, which is nice.) Neither of the female leads makes a good Ripley, Elba makes a decent Harry Dean Stanton, Fassbender makes a great whatever Data’s evil brother’s name was, and the scientist with the glasses makes a flawless Damon Lindelof. (But can we never have hot, young genius scientists in a movie ever again please? How base and stupid do you think we are?) What this movie does have is some lovely shots, and a decent sense of being isolated in unknown territory, far away from home. But mostly? It’s like being spoon-fed gruel, loaded with empty calories. Sorry movie, it’s your own fault for being an Alien. But, as someone on the way out of the screening remarked, “It’s not as bad as George Lucas.” So, at least there’s that?
Bonus extended rant: Seriously, the exposition in this movie is so, so mind-numbing. They actually feel the need to tell the audience things like “You can’t go outside the ship without your spacesuit on,” and “These devices will give us readings about the environment.” Seriously? Do we need to be told these things? Were you worried people were going to be like “Why are they wearing those glass helmets all of a sudden?” and “I wonder what those devices that are giving them readings about the environment are for?” Give me something to think about for like a split-second, please. And the setups for later plot points are as subtle as an air horn. “Hey you guys, this room is an escape pod!” “Woah, check out this super special device!” Like, there was almost a sound effect indicating “You will be hearing about this again later.” Seriously movie. Just do your thing. We’ll catch up.
If you are someone who experiences chronic anxiety or depression, I do not recommend deciding on a whim to catch a late night screening of Melancholia solo. It’s kind of like an alcoholic leisurely deciding to take in a screening of Barfly. During my walk back to the car after the film I felt like a tube of toothpaste that was being squeezed empty, and I had to convulse slightly to try and get the feeling out. The first half of the film shows us Justine, whose viscous anxiety leads her to sabotage her own wedding. (Or perhaps, rather, to lead her into a wedding that had no chance for success in the first place). Then, the second half of the film flips the script, focusing on her sister Claire, who gets locked in a crippling depression upon finding out the world will end within the next few days. After their fates are sealed, Justine seems more confident and comfortable than in the entire rest of the film. The rest of the world now shares her intense sense of dread, and her extensive experience in this state of mind allows her to become a chaperone to those around her. The film, although played straight, might ultimately be mocking its subject. (This is von Trier we’re dealing with here.) Aside from the absurd bluntness of its title, the very plot of the movie highlights the illogical nature of Justine’s depression- an event of science-fiction would have to occur to justify it. I don’t share that view, however, and when Justine’s insecurities were eventually validated I shared in her relief.
Although it may have been intended as a strength, Cloverfield ultimately suffers from it’s stark simplicity. It’s a one trick pony that doesn’t offer anything under any level of scrutiny. It’s a barely passable thriller of the theme park variety, but empty characters, flat acting and the complete lack of any sort of theme keep it from being completely enjoyable even on that level. 2
A straight up, engrossingly paced film noir (okay it’s kind of an action movie too, but not in a bad way) set in a stunningly rendered future that CGI wouldn’t do justice to. Harrison Ford is really charismatic and Rutger Hauer and Daryl Hannah are terrifying. Although it might take you a couple of views to fully grasp the plot, it probably isn’t as heady as it’s reputation or the pedigree of it’s source material would lead you to believe. 4.5
Alien is a great film. It’s mostly due to the design of the alien creature itself, with a believable intrinsic mythology written all over it’s face that make it both fantastic and horrifyingly real. This overpowering element is cemented by the detailed, working class space ship set design and even further grounded by some very raw performances. The pace is slow and maybe not as absorbing as it attempts to be, but I don’t think anyone who is not just looking for a cheap thrill could claim to be bored. 4/5 stars
The Abyss is a whimsical thriller from the Steven Speilberg era of science-fiction. It’s totally serviceable if that’s what you’re in the mood for, but doesn’t demand to be seen if you’re not. Loses it’s way when it forgets about the science fiction elements for a good long while, but more than picks them up again at the end. It’s rock solid premise is intriguing, but it doesn’t really do much with it other than stage action sequences. I hear the director’s cut is a vast improvement over the original version. 3
Moon is a solid throwback to a time when science fiction was more strongly associated with thoughtful introspection than mindless action. It’s lack of exposition and quaint but superior special effects set it apart and ahead of anything else you’re likely to be able to catch at the multiplex this summer, but Sam Rockwell’s absorbing double performance is probably going to be what people remember the most. I really appreciated the appropriately bleak and claustrophobic atmosphere, and although I wasn’t quite prepared for how intense and dramatic it is, I didn’t mind that either. I can understand some people’s slight dissatisfaction with the film; it’s not thrilling enough to be mindless entertainment and doesn’t have heavy enough themes to provide a real hearty mental meal. But everyone does seem to agree that it’s well worth your summer movie dollars. 4
I was really excited about seeing this movie, and wasn’t let down. It’s kind of like a more horror oriented Twilight Zone, made a couple of decades before that show came out. It’s really well written and fun to watch, and genuinely creepy in a couple of places. 4/5