“Snowpiercer” may be the oddest film of the year so far. The set up sounds like a standard dystopian world scenario… to a point.
Set just seventeen years from today, the movie, written and directed by Joon-ho Bong, takes place in a dystopian world where global warming has turned the planet into one giant snowball.
So far this could be “The Day After Tomorrow,” or “The Colony” or any number of icy thrillers set in a sub zero world.
All of humanity now lives on a train, owned and operated by a mysterious industrialist named Wilford, hurtling through what’s left of ice-covered planet. It’s an ecosystem with its own class system. In the front of the locomotive people live a life of luxury, dining on sushi, partying in nightclubs, tending orchids in greenhouses, while the folks in the back, “the freeloaders” are forced to live in atrocious conditions. Imagine the steerage section in “Titanic” only WAY worse.
Crammed in like sardines these “tail section” passengers are treated like prisoners, forced to eat “protean bars” of dubious quality and tortured for the slightest of infractions. “Know your place,” commands Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton). “Accept your place.”
It’s an atmosphere ripe for revolution, but can ringleaders Curtis (Chris Evans), Gilliam (John Hurt) and right hand man Edgar (Jamie Bell) fight their way through the train (and all of the story’s allegories) to the front and freedom?
Based on the French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige,” “Snowpiercer” is the nerviest actioner to come along in a season crowded with movies that go crash, boom, bang. It’s an environmental thriller—if you haven’t already seen Bong’s “The Host” do so now!—that is unapologetically weird, keeping the audience off balance for the entirety of its two-hour running time.
Tilda Swinton as the train’s Iron Lady, the minister of discipline, plays like a cross between a prison guard, Benny Hill and Margaret Thatcher. It’s a loopy performance that embraces and embodies the movie’s weird spirit.
In the world Bong creates surprises are around every corner, characters come and go, but it never feels odd for odd’s sake. The story rips along like a rocket (or thousand car train, if you like), sometimes in several directions at once, but Bong controls the chaos, keeping the story plausible (OK, plausible-ish) and above all, entertaining.
Saoirse Ronan is just movie away from being a superstar. I’m convinced that with the right choices this talented young Irish actor could be a Kristen Stewart level a-lister.
Trouble is, of late she’s been the best thing in a series of movies that people didn’t see. “Violet and Daisy,” “Byzantium” and “The Host”—which was positioned as the start of a “Twilight” style franchise before audiences ran the other way—all underperformed, adding little luster to her star.
In “How I Live Today” she hands in another great performance, made all the more impressive as she wrings it out of a movie that is beautiful to look at, but low on any real substance.
In “How I Live Now” she plays Daisy, an anxiety-ridden New York teen sent to live with her aunt and cousin in the English countryside by her disinterested dad and his new wife. She wears her lack of self esteem like a badge. “I’m a curse,” she says, “everywhere I go bad [things] happen.”
Just as she starts to bond with her young cousins Piper (Harley Bird) and Isaac (Tom Holland) and REALLY bond (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) with hunky Eddie (George MacKay), something bad does happen. Their bucolic life is torn apart after terrorists ignite a nuclear bomb in London, killing tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands.
The country falls under military law and soon the cousins are separated by gender and sent to work camps. As they are being torn apart Eddie and daisy make a deal to meet back at the country house, no mater what it takes to get there.
Surrounded by terror and uncertainty Daisy digs deep into “Dr. Phil” style pop psychology—“Take the bad,” she says, “put it in a box and focus on the good.”—to morph from angst ridden teen to Survivorwoman to find her way back “home” and reunite her new family.
When she is not pouting or in Eddie’s capable arms, Ronan spends most of her onscreen time on a dangerous trek with preteen Piper. It’s here her character gets interesting thanks to Ronan’s subtle but intriguing performance, but director Kevin “The Last King of Scotland” Macdonald’s reliance on musical montages to move the action forward, while beautiful, get in the way of the actors creating really memorable moments.
The actors are all good looking, as is the movie, but the visuals aren’t of the show-me-don’t-tell-me type, they’re more like cinematic wallpaper. It’s a treat for the eyes, but rings hollow in the story and character department.
For example, Daisy is a classic teen over thinker. We know this because McDonald adds in the ghostly voice of her inner mind on the soundtrack, and yet, (SPOILER ALERT) after she shoots two men dead there’s barely a second thought given to the murders.
Ronan is gifted, and will one day find the role to make her a star, unfortunately for all it’s visual panache, “How I Live Now” isn’t it.
Big monsters are back. Movies like “The Host” and “Cloverfield” have reintroduced audiences to that rarest, but biggest of beasts, the giant out-of-control monster. Who needs vampires and zombies when you could have a ninety foot tall squid with a bad attitude and a Christmas bulb for a head?
The latest addition to the big monster genre is “Monsters,” an indie movie that reportedly only cost $15,000. Part road trip, part romance and all atmosphere, the story of Andrew (Scoot McNairy), an opportunistic photojournalist, who must escort his boss’s daughter, Sam (Whitney Able), back to the U.S. border through the treacherous quarantine area inhabited by… you guessed it, giant creatures left there when a NASA space craft carrying samples of extraterrestrial life crashed.
It’s a pure b-movie premise and for the first fifteen minutes or so promises to be little more than a Roger Corman film with better CGI. Then something happens. The movie becomes about the relationship between total opposites Andrew and Sam as they bond over their trip’s hardships and the strangeness of their surroundings. It’s a giant monster movie that focuses on the characters and despite some wild plot contrivances, it works.
The character study is a slow burn that leads up to the big reveal, the unveiling of the creatures. For most of the film they are seen and not heard but director Gareth Edwards paces the film carefully building up suspense through use of sound effects to climax with a wild mating dance between two of the Lovecraftian beasts. It’s a strangely beautiful and eerie sequence that brings the movie to a close.
“Monsters” isn’t as effective as “District 9” or “Cloverfield,” two other recent movies that introduced us to new creatures, but it is a complex film with timely messages about immigration (the US is protected by a giant fence to keep the monsters out) and our reactions in times of danger.
In “The Host,” the new film from the Stephanie “Twilight” Meyer’s fantasy factory, most humans have been “occupied” by a race of aliens who take on the bodies of their hosts. They don’t change the world, they just perfect it—there’s no hatred, no violence, no fighting and everyone is polite. Sounds like Toronto in 1956.
When we first meet Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan) she is a human girl on the run from the Seekers, aliens in human form who have taken over the planet. To protect her brother Jamie (Chandler Canterbury) she is captured and injected with a parasitic ET soul that resembles an iridescent silver fish. The alien, named Wanderer or Wanda for short, is now in control of Melanie’s body, but, using sheer strength of will, she fights back, winning over her alien invader who helps her find her brother and other human loved ones.
“The Host” is to sci fi what “Twilight” is to “Dracula.” The alien plot is an anchor for the love story, not the other way around.
That’s right, Meyer is back with another otherworldly love story.
This time around it’s a love tetragon between Melanie—or at least her consciousness—Wanderer—in the form of Melanie’s body—and two human boys, Jarrod (Max Irons) and Ian (Jake Abel). Mel loves Jarrod but Wanda loves Ian and Melanie’s inner mind becomes jealous of Wanda’s shell and her desires for Ian.
Asimov this ain’t. It does contain some interesting speculative ideas—ie: if our memories are still alive, are we?—but the framework is inherently uncinematic. For instance the push-and-pull between Melanie and her alien intruder is played out via a voice over of Mel arguing with the alien. Ronan has the unenviable task of not only delivering a massive amount of narration, but also reacting to it.
Then there is the frequently awkward way characters have to interact with Mel, Wanda or any combination thereof. At one point Ian asks Wanda, in Mel’s body, “Is there anyway Melanie could give us some privacy?” When she’s asked about having two souls trapped in her body Wanda says, “It’s crowded.” With so many characters trapped in one body Sybil has nothing on this girl.
Occasionally Melanie’s suppressed will physically manifests with a tic—she’ll force her old body to throw a pencil to the ground rather than draw a map for her Seeker captors—but instead of feeling organic to the character it looks more like an homage to a 50s b-movie camp.
“The Host” has elements of camp—unintentional probably—but it’s not “Plan Nine from Outer Space.” It’s an earnest story about love conquering all that is a little too earthbound to be called sci fi and a bit too spacy to be taken terribly seriously as anything but a Harlequin for teens.
Unlike most pop culture superstars, author Stephenie Meyer is not on Twitter. Well, she is, but she’s only tweeted twice, both times on April 16, 2009. Still, she has almost 100,000 followers eager to hear any pronouncement from the woman who gave us eternal lovers Bella Swan, Edward Cullen and the Twilight universe.
She had time to tap out the two tweets because at the time her world “had not been affected by the movies as it is now.”
Currently the five Twilight films have grossed over $2 billion and a new film sits poised to create another Meyer franchise. It’s unlikely she’ll have time to tweet anytime soon.
The Host, starring Saoirse Ronan, is a science fiction romance based on Meyer’s 2008 novel.
“When I came up with the idea I was driving between Phoenix and Salt Lake City,” she says.
“Through the desert there really is nothing for hours and hours and I didn’t have anyone to talk to, so I was entertaining myself and in the middle of that came the idea of two people, in one body, in love with the same person, and that conflict. I thought, ‘That’s not a bad idea’ and I started working on it, just in my head, until I could get to where I could start typing.”
Her love of science fiction dates back to early childhood when her father would read the stories of Frank Herbert, Orson Scott Card and others aloud to the family.“I remember he read us Dune. The first one gave me nightmares.”
The home readings, she says, were “great for a growing imagination. I also had a real affinity for that kind of reading so I don’t think it was an accident that the second world I created was a science fiction world.”
She’s quick to point out, however, that The Host is suitable for people who don’t necessarily like sci fi.
“It’s in our world and it looks the same and people are in our bodies, so it feels the same.
“You don’t have to try and immerse yourself in something that is completely alien to you.
“I think that takes away one of the hurdles for people who aren’t sure about science fiction.”
As a fan, however, she sees the tantalizing possibilities in the genre.
“Science fiction lets us experience something that we haven’t yet,” she says, “but we might.”
Canadian film critic Richard Crouse seems to have his hands full with regular gigs in mainstream television, radio and print journalism, yet still manages to find the time to indulge in his lifelong passion for cult cinema. His most recent tome is The Son of the 100 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a follow-up to The 100 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, both of them containing a heavy amount of the macabre.
Making up a list like this is tough. I’m sure I’ll remember a classic or two that I should have included after I hit the send button, but, off the top of my head, here are my faves…
1. The Exorcist 1973, Directed by William Friedkin. The single scariest night at the movies this ten year old ever experienced.
2. Let the Right One In 2008, Directed by Tomas Alfredson. A vampire film without a castle, a cape or coffin. Loved it.
3. Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein 1948, Directed by Charles Barton. Perfect mix of corny laughs and scary stuff.
4. Ginger Snaps 2000, Directed by John Fawcett. Great reinvention of the werewolf myth.
5. Frankenstein 1931, Directed by James Whale. For my money the best of the classic Universal monster movies.
6. Dawn of the Dead 1978, Directed by George A. Romero. Probably the greatest zombie flick ever.
7. Rosemary’s Baby 1968, Directed by Roman Polanski. Evil atmosphere you could cut with a knife.
8. Psycho 1960, Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. I still get creeped out in the shower.
9. May 2002, Directed by Lucky McKee. Really underrated horror film that deserves to be better known than it is.
10. The Host 2006, Directed by Joon-ho Bong. Big bug movies don’t get much better than this.
In The Host, the hotly anticipated new film written by Twilight scribe Stephenie Meyer, a parasitic alien is injected into the body of Melanie Stryder, played by Saoirse Ronan.
Sounds grim, but remember, this is from the lady who gave us sparkly vampires and undying love, so the alien inside is kind of a lovesick creature who helps the host body find her loved ones.
That’s a lot more benign than other parasitic alien movies.
The most famous alien organism — in the movie Alien, naturally — literally burst on the screen, poking its horrible head through the chest of John Hurt in one of cinema’s most indelibly creepy moments.
To get a natural reaction from his actors, director Ridley Scott didn’t fully explain what was about to happen as they shot the scene.
“Everyone (on the crew) was wearing raincoats,” said Sigourney Weaver. “We should have been a little suspicious.”
When the alien came careening out of Hurt’s body the actors were genuinely surprised.
Blood oozed all over the set and the shock was so intense it’s alleged that Veronica Cartwright passed out and Yaphet Kotto was so freaked out he went to his room and wouldn’t talk to anyone.
Much less bloody is The Puppet Masters, which sees the earth invaded by alien “slugs” that piggyback on people’s backs, controlling their minds.
Based on the Robert A. Heinlein 1951 novel, the film starred Donald Sutherland, who also appeared in one of the genre’s classics, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The original movie of the story, taken from Jack Finney’s classic novel The Body Snatchers, dates from 1956 and has been declared by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or esthetically significant,” but it is the Sutherland version, from 1978, that is truly chilling.
The story of alien infiltration — humans are being replaced one by one by emotionless ETs — was called “the best film of its kind ever made” by The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael and a movie that “validates the entire concept of remakes,” according to Variety.
The strangest movie parasite wasn’t an alien, but a bug that feeds on fear.
In the Tingler, these parasites attach themselves to their host’s spine and tingle when the host is frightened or scared.
In its original 1959 run it was shown with the Percepto! gimmick that gave some of the theatre seats a small electrical jolt — or tingle — during the movie’s climax.