I know what people taste like.
I know that babies taste best.
That’s not a confession. It’s one of the most memorable lines in Bong Joon-Ho’s new film Snowpiercer — or any movie this year, for that matter — and it’s pretty indicative of the grim worldview on display in this and other 2014 films. Science fiction has been big this year, but big on a very small scale. Sure, there are the senseless cyborgs of Transformers: Age Of Extinction and time travel antics in X-Men: Days Of Future Past; the mutant lizard Godzilla and Tom Cruise’s never-dying soldier in Edge Of Tomorrow; because we expect sci-fi to drive a good number of our summer blockbusters.
But much of this year’s arthouse fare has also taken a page from the comic books. Scarlett Johansson’s extraterrestrial femme fatale was the subject of the slow-moving and ponderous Under The Skin, while Coherence took a look at the mind-bending shenanigans that happen as a comet passes overhead. And while neither The Double nor Enemy is exactly science fiction, they do center on the kind of events you could find on The Twilight Zone.
This summer has also seen the release of a couple dystopian titles from international filmmakers — Snowpiercer and The Rover. The former is set in a frozen-over Earth after a global cooling experiment gone awry; the latter uses the dry flatness of Australia to double for a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Despite these aesthetic differences, however, they tell similarly bleak tales about the base violence that kicks in whenever mankind is threatened with extinction.Snowpiercier is the flashier and starrier of the two. Directed by the man behind the silly-fun monster movie The Host and the excellent, heartbreaking Mother (one of my top films of 2010), it’s a Korean-American co-production based on a French graphic novel, and you can feel that it’s a multi-national hybrid of bloated American blockbusting and moody, menacing South Korean quirk. (Plus a bit of French whimsy and ass-kicking.) Set seventeen years after an attempt to curb global warming backfired and rendered all of Earth an inhabitable icy tundra, it begins in the caboose of the massive bullet train named Snowpiercer, which encircles the globe exactly once every year. The back of the train is populated by society’s lowest class, a group of grimy individuals — many missing limbs — including Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, and Chris Evans as our hero, Curtis, who plays his role as what would happen if Captain America was reduced to infant-chomping in order to survive.
Evans delivers one fantastic and frightening monologue about the baby-eating that includes what is probably my favorite line of dialogue from 2014 thus far. It’s a powerful, ponderous moment, the sort of material Evans will never get to deliver in the all-American Marvel movies, and it’s the reason that Snowpiercer feels so fresh and so fun. We’re not used to seeing a movie of this grandiose scope and budget ($40 million) that dares to delve into such dank, desperate places. Curtis leads a ragtag group of warriors to attack their guards, then helps the group push forward. As they move frontward, the cars get more uxurious (and, it must be said, slightly less plausible), ranging from a greenhouse to a sushi restaurant to a spa to a nightclub. The group suffers heavy fatalities along the way, prompting us to wonder if this little mission to take control of the train’s engine is even worth it now that Snowpiercer’s poor have tradied up from eating babies to eating a mushy black protein substance made of bugs. That question only looms larger as the survivors dwindle and get closer to the front of the train.
No, Snowpiercer is not totally easy to get on board with, logistically. A number of questions and concerns hover in our minds and are never fully satisfied. Besides Octavia Spencer’s plucky Tanya, there seems to be a curious lack of women in the back half of the train, and we have to wonder what it is these people actually do with their time that makes their existence on the train so vital. And as our ragtag heroes push forward through so many visually arresting train cars, it only raises questions about all the many, many cars we must not be seeing. Where is the car with the cows that the steak comes from? Where do all the wealthy people go when they’re not clubbing or getting their hair done? Is there really such a lack of security that allows these guys to move forward? (On the other hand, the international, multi-ethnic cast actually makes sense in this kind of story, unlike the new Transformers, which wedges in Chinese stars and subplots to ensure a massive showing overseas.)
Snowpiercer is better as a rich-versus-poor allegory than it is as a plausible piece of sci-fi — light on the science, heavy on the fiction. What it does have is one of Tilda Swinton’s kookier performances (and that’s saying something!) as a heartless lackey of the train’s mysterious, Oz-like creator, Wilford, and an attention-grabbing turn from Alison Pill as a perky but ruthless schoolteacher. (Meanwhile, a badass mute named Grey, played by Luke Paqualino, seems to have more potential than he’s allowed to utilize here.) It’s a lively and game cast of characters who engage in a number of memorable action sequences, from a grim axe battle to a suspenseful spa showdown — the second act is superb. Unfortunately, the third act moves into a talky, James Bondian villain-explains-it-all mode that raises more questions than it answers, and the final moments of Snowpiercer are narratively bold but not fully satisfying. (Again, prompting us to think that perhaps this whole rebellion was just a really bad idea from the start.) Still, it’s a welcome alternative to the more mindless fare often offered by studios — I’d rather watch an action movie that contains a lot of fairly silly ideas than no ideas at all.And that brings us to The Rover, the latest film from David Michod, who last brought us the stellar Animal Kingdom (another one of my favorites from 2010 — #2, to be exact). This dystopic world has far from frozen over. The post-apocalyptic details are less clear — all we know is that it’s been a decade since something called “the collapse” seems to have significantly thinned the population and turned everyone into a bunch of, well, low-life criminal Australians. And instead of revolving around the quest to take control of a massive train, here the entire story is driven by our antihero’s mission to reclaim his stolen automobile.
Eric (Guy Pearce) is drinking alone in a bar, as I suppose one would likely do in this unhappy world. When a trio of criminals absconds with his vehicle, Eric steals their vehicle in a memorably tense car chase, promising that he won’t stop pursuing them until he gets his wheels back. Along the way, he meets up with the brother of one of the thieves, Rey, played by Robert Pattinson. Rey is what we might politely call “a little slow,” and Pattinson turns in a pretty impressive performance (especially for those most familiar with his Twilight brooding). The Rover allows a partnership to form between these men, but certainly not a friendship. As suspenseful and moody as Animal Kingdom was, The Rover outdoes it tenfold, making this a much bleaker movie. It’s well-made, well-acted, well-shot, and contains the most hilariously atonal use of a Keri Hilson song you’re ever likely to see, but for whatever reason, it’s not a lot of fun to watch. Eric isn’t an easy care to like, so we’re rather uninvested in whether or not he gets his car back. This world is such a downer that there’s not much we can hope for at all.
Michod is still a very skilled filmmaker, and I look forward to his next piece of work. But The Rover is a step down from Animal Kingdom, and I’m not likely to watch it again. Still, I’m a fan of the meaner, darker dystopias we’ve seen this summer, and glad that Transformers: Age Of Extinction isn’t the only transportation-oriented science fiction available to us.