Wednesday, July 2, 2014


Summertime tends to be sci-fi time at the American movies, and so far this summer is no exception. Opening this week:

Snowpiercer—This one begins with the release of a cooling agent, something like “Ice Nine” in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, to combat global warming. The world immediately freezes and, according to the opening exposition, “all life became extinct.” This would be rather anticlimactic, so the movie contradicts itself at once: A remnant of society remains, riding a futuristic supertrain in a constant, annual loop around the snowbound earth.

The train’s “Tail Section” houses the ragged underclass, kept in check by armed guards and fed on nasty-looking cubes of protein gel. A band of revolutionaries led by Curtis (Chris Evans) and a wizened old sage, Gilliam (John Hurt) makes a charge toward the front of the train, where the first-class passengers live in decadent luxury. Once past the more brutal and unsavory security forces, each car along the way is increasingly swanky and bizarre—the revolutionaries storm aquariums, sushi bars, schoolhouses, beauty salons and discos. Central to the plot are such initially baffling elements as hard-boiled eggs, tape measures and apparently the last two cigarettes in the world.

Based on a French comic book (Le Transperceniege), this is the work of Bong Joon-ho, the brilliant Korean who made The Host. For a while I couldn’t decide if Snowpiercer was the silliest piece of camp in years or the most blisteringly profound allegory for modern society since Hobbes’ Leviathan, but after a while I realized I didn’t have to choose—either way, the movie is never boring.

The cast is superb—it includes Jamie Bell, Ed Harris, Song Kang-ho and Ah-sung Ko (both from The Host), Octavia Spencer, Alison Pill and, best of all, Tilda Swinton, hilarious as a toadying minor official. The design of the train is a series of nutty surprises, and the music, by Marco Beltrami, is stirring. Snowpiercer is savagely violent at times, and has episodes that fall flat, but overall it’s one of the weirdest and most fascinating sci-fi movies to come down the track in a long time.

Earth to Echo—Three preteen friends are about to be separated by the eminent domain destruction of their Nevada subdivision. They decide to have one more big adventure together, so they ride their bikes out to the middle of the desert, tracking a digital signal, and there find a cute little cybernetic alien, apparently marooned. They dub him Echo and quickly figure out how to communicate with him. Soon, joined by a pretty girl they like, they’re helping Echo gather parts to repair himself and return to his spaceship.

The movie is a collection of motifs from ‘80s kids’ fantasy/adventure movies—most obviously E.T., both in its storyline and in certain visual nods, like the creepy, amorphous mob of human researchers chasing the boys, flashlights in hand. But there are also hints of The Goonies, Explorers, maybe even Stand By Me, and Echo looks a bit like Bubo the clockwork owl in the original Clash of the Titans. This gives the film a pleasing throwback quality, and the young leads create a likable sense of loyalty to each other.

Still in theatres:

Transformers: Age of Extinction—Because the Transformers toys came along after my own childhood, I don’t have the sentimental attachment to them that boys who were kids in the ‘80s do. And the first two big-budget Transformers blockbusters starred Shia LeBeouf, whose appeal, I’m afraid, was lost on me. So those films left me cold.

But this new sequel features robotic dinosaurs, and I’ve always been partial to dinosaurs. And instead of LeBeouf in the male lead, it features Mark Wahlberg, who I also like (though not as much as I like dinosaurs). So I was prepared to like this movie.

Well, it has some splendid otherworldy spectacle. The director, Michael Bay, doesn’t seem to have an ounce of restraint in his personality, but he is able to stage scenes in which robotic giants amble nonchalantly through settings of burnished Americana, as if Isaac Asimov’s imagination had somehow invaded the vision of Norman Rockwell, and this stuff is executed seamlessly by the special effects team.

All that said, this move is dumb, and so outrageously overlong that it feels, somehow, like an act of aggression. It’s nearly three hours long. It’s almost an hour longer than Citizen Kane. It’s more than an hour longer than Casablanca. And you don’t even get to see the robot dinosaurs until near the end. If you really want to see it, wait for the DVD.

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