TRAINS vs APES

Film Reviews by IG-88

I believe there’s an old adage that goes: Fall is for reaping, Winter is for snow, Spring is for planting and Summer is for robots, superheroes, spaceships and aliens and to a lesser degree, the post-apocalypse. No? Well, I might be paraphrasing but it’s more or less the truth. Because for years now Summer has been blockbuster territory and, more often than not, GENRE territory. This season has been no exception, with the Studios offering us genre goodies like new chapters of the X-Men and Transformers films and Tom Cruise’s excellent Edge of Tomorrow, as well as the highly anticipated Guardians of The Galaxy, which arrives in theatres on August 1st.  But while Summer offers us tons and tons of geekly fruit, not all of it has been sweet and yummy. It’s a mixed bag, with one of the freshest of the lot being the barely hailed Snowpiercer (which I’ll get to later) and the most over ripe and squishy being the gnarly, bloated peach that is Dawn of The Planet of The Apes. Let’s discuss the apes first.

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The first problem with this film is the title. It’s predecessor, the one starring James Franco, was called RISE of The Planet of The Apes and was all about how the apes became super intelligent and how that process simultaneously caused a virus which poisoned humanity, re-booted a venerable old movie franchise and began the story of Caesar, the first smarty pants ape. This newest film picks up a decade later after the virus has devastated humanity.  Only pockets of civilization remain, including the haggard colony living in what’s left of San Francisco. While the humans struggle with dwindling supplies and no electricity, the brainy apes have begun to build their own tribal society in the redwood forest North of town. When the humans come to the woods to rebuild a dam, apes are killed and lies are told, resulting in the the sweet battle scenes in the trailer which, falsely, made this whole thing seem interesting to us. So here’s my confusion about the title: to me, the first movie, about the birth of Ape intelligence, seems like a DAWN and the second movie, about the revolt, is more of a RISE. Am I crazy? Yes, but only for giving this movie that much thought.

The second problem is that it’s boring. Which, again, for a movie that features sentient talking apes riding horses and shooting automatic weapons, is pretty inexcusable. I’m not sure why it’s so dull. Maybe it’s because a lot of the film’s dialogue is delivered in sign language.  The apes, perhaps realistically, haven’t quite mastered human language. Which is fine. But watching CGI chimps sign “Me Love You” against the rain-gray backdrop of Muir Woods will put a man to sleep quicker than downing an Ativan with a cough syrup chaser. Another reason could be its 130-minute running time. Now that’s not so long by blockbuster standards (hell, Transformers IV runs a bloated 165 minutes!), but it seems interminable when only about 20 minutes is devoted to ape fighting and the rest of the movie is devoted to talking (or signing) about the possibility of ape fighting. In short, the film promises to be a sci-fi thriller, but delivers instead a windy and redundant “think piece” about the nature of war and peace that never quite makes its point. Anyway, dullsville.

On the upside, there are workman like performances from Andy Serkis as the ape Caesar, Jason Clarke as the well meaning human sent to fix the dam, Kerri Russell (underused) as his “companion” and the reliable Gary Oldman as the leader of the desperate human colony in San Francisco. There are some other people in it too and they also seem very nice. But this film is not really set up to make anyone look great.  The look of the film and the visual effects are also excellent, but not in a particularly notable way.  Like a bad gastro-pub burger, this film looks and seems expensive but is ultimately just standard fare and, in the end, unsatisfying.

Now, on to the good. No, strike that, the GREAT. Snowpiercer, from Korean director Joon Ho-Bong and based on the 1982 French graphic novel La Transperceneige, is a dystopian tale with a difference. Like similar stories, the movie examines the last remnants of humanity after a terrible global calamity (in this case a failed attempt to reverse global warming), barely surviving and forced to live in close quarters. In this case, those quarters are not a silo, a bunker or a crumbling city, but a globe circling train that plows along the frozen Earth on an endless circuit that takes an entire year to complete. It seems a silly scenario but it sets a brilliantly effective stage for this intelligent actioner to play upon.

Snowpiercer

With the poor and suffering crammed into the tail of the train and the rich and privileged living the high life up front, the metaphor is not subtle. But it’s not meant to be. After all it’s not so different from the society we’re living in right now. Director Joon Ho-Bong (The Host) wants us to get it right away because, unlike that ape movie, he’s not going to waste any time. When the poor folks in the rear of the train revolt and begin their bloody journey to the engine he takes us on a ride that leaves very little room for us to catch our breath.

The film stars Chris Evans as the rebel Curtis and features an excellent cast of supporting characters played by the illustrious likes of Ed Harris, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Alison Pill and the always terrific and creepy Tilda Swinton as Mason, the fascist mouthpiece for the rich folks. But even with this impressive cast it received very little marketing support stateside, opening first in the director’s native Korea. And though it quickly became a huge blockbuster there the film opened tiny in the US, screening in only eight theatres. But with buzz for the film ramping up on social media and an innovative VOD co-release exposing the film to at home viewers (it’s number one on iTunes right now), Snowpiercer has moved into over 400 theatres and is quickly becoming… I said I wouldn’t do this… the little engine that could. (I’m so, so sorry).

The reason for this is because it’s solid in every way. The script, direction, cinematography and pacing are all on point. And the though the story seems familiar, that’s only a neat little bit of deception. Sure, we recognize who the goodies and baddies are and right away, almost reflexively, hitch our wagon to Curtis and his ragged band of rebels. But not everything is at it seems onboard Snowpiercer. Joon H0-Bong takes this straight line tale and adds curves, obstacles and unexpected pit stops along the way that keep the viewer engaged for the entire 126 minutes. The biggest pleasure of this film is that all of this is delivered in a fresh visual style that borrows from the aesthetic of martial arts films, The Road Warrior and, especially, the manic humor and rigid art direction of the films of Terry Gilliam. Indeed, it’s probably no coincidence that John Hurt’s character, a sage mentor who is hiding secrets, is named Gilliam.

My wife and I viewed Snowpiercer at home and with very little information about what to expect, hoping only for something to occupy a couple of married nerds on a Saturday night. But after a few minutes we realized that we had stumbled onto something very special: a science fiction film with the heart of a novel and the guts to toy with our expectations. Something that is at once a thrilling action ride and a thoughtful meditation on the structure of society and the inevitability (or not) of one’s place in that structure. It was a deeply satisfying viewing experience and one we will repeat in the near future. But, like I said, we didn’t know that before hand. It was that rarest of treasures in the current morass of genre film and TV… a surprise.  For that reason I will not spoil the film for you by describing the literally dozens of memorable scenes and moments.  You’ll just have to trust me on this. This weekend, either by seeking it out at your local art house theatre or by ordering it up on iTunes or Amazon, choose the train over the apes. You won’t regret it.