There was an abundance of promotional posters for Snowpiercer (2013). These were probably my favorites.
Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Tuesday, December 9, 2014
The word Brilliant leapt from my mouth when the credits rolled following the final frame of Snowpiercer (2013).
Snowpiercer, directed by Bong Joon-ho, is based on a little known French graphic novel, La Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette. In fact, do the French even know about it? I've only seen the book on graphic novel shelves at the book store and its complementing sequel. Nevertheless, due strictly to the sheer lack of available time in my life, it's unlikely that I will ever read it, but if it's anything or hopefully everything like the film, it is a visionary work of science fiction. Snowpiercer, the film, is truly a minor masterpiece of fittingly moving images. It is a masterfully executed and gorgeously realized dystopian future where humanity survives imprisoned on a high speed, remarkable train in a world brought catastrophically to its knees by cold and ice, all very much the result of humankind. But the locomotive is the perfect vehicle for hurtling its inhabitants through an unrelenting journey film of ideas and images.
There are moments of sheer chaos amidst the filthy inhabitants of the Tail Section as they are referred to that remind one instantly of other masterstroke works like The Road Warrior (1981). There is certainly a nod to that kind of creativity. Even with strangely weird bits that lend Snowpiercer to the kind of strange, otherworldly sci-fi drama that made George Miller's trilogy so enticingly delicious and original. Though Joon-ho wisely never takes those odd bits too far or to the point of distraction. The director is comfortable in telling Snowpiercer's own strange enough story without resorting to the overly eccentric. There is a touch of Moscow born director Andrei Konchalovsky's Runaway Train (1985) in the mix based on a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, but I couldn't help but wonder if there wasn't a little inspiration for that film from this graphic novel that preceded it just a few years earlier. Wishful thinking I suspect.
But Snowpiercer is one for the collection and one I will revisit again soon. I'm becoming more and more discerning with my television and film purchases as I age and I've made some mistakes along the way to be sure. After some anticipation I was appalled by the bore that was The Last Days On Mars (2013) by Ruairi Robinson. That's a film that comes to mind. I wish I could have both my money and time back.
But Snowpiercer is a magnificent work of pure art quickly compensating me for my missteps. Every frame and performance is stunningly imaginative and part of a breathtakingly fascinating experience. The world created for this single train is pure, creative genius. Each individual rail car brings to glorious life the wonders of our glorious past via a microcosm of survival. It's like a post-apocalyptic Noah's Ark of sorts or could be. I can imagine a host of other rail cars.
Joon-ho economically creates an impressive science fiction universe on a song. Budgeted at roughly 39 million dollars it is a powerhouse, a locomotive-like film of horror and wonders. These are sequences that must be seen and experienced.
Joon-ho pays close attention to the minutia and details in every scene too. Like the train itself his story twists and turns and reveals new pieces of information as it speeds along. This prison life rife with despair is also met with glimmers of hope and Joon-ho really pays attention to those little moments which are few, but brighten the film's darkness when it needs it most. Those moments are beautiful to behold too.
Take one look back to an equally imaginative film of the same caliber like Ridley Scott's Prometheus (2012), one of the most stylish and original works of science fiction to precede Snowpiercer of late, and realize that film was produced at roughly 130 million dollars and the mind just boggles. How do directors like Joon-ho pull it off? Is it sheer will, determination, reputation? It's amazing really when you consider the obstacles.
The well-scripted Snowpiercer is filled with a varied (Star Trek: The Original Series would be proud) and an equally colorful cast given to riveting performances from the over the top work here of the sensational Tilda Swinton to the understated Ed Harris. Chris Evans (Sunshine), John Hurt (Alien), Song Kang-ho (The Host), Go Ah-sung (The Host) and Ewen Bremner (Black Hawk Down) round out a pedigree supported by a sparkling work of imagination on every front.
In fact, speaking of The Host (2006), also by Joon-ho, and reviewed in brief here many years ago, that was a kaiju (monster) film that arrived and outshined much of its Toho competition. That film was and still remains one of the finest kaiju pictures to have been committed to film in years. Snowpiercer brought me back to the sheer vision and drive of The Host created by Joon-ho only to realize how much more I enjoyed that film over and above Gareth Edwards recently bloated Godzilla reboot. The Host was by far and away a more entertaining and intimate film than the lumbering affair that was Godzilla (2014) with The Host and Godzilla budgeted at 11 million versus 160 million respectively. That sounds like a monster-sized smackdown if ever there was one and yet The Host is one I've seen a number of times and will likely visit again. Equally so, Snowpiercer is a crackling, sharp tale that smokes along without nigh a sign of the bloated, lackluster writing or flat character development that filled the world of Edwards' Godzilla.
To put Snowpiercer in perspective, it is the kind of film that inspires a young mind and powers a generation of film lovers. I think back to my young experience seeing Ridley Scott's Blade Runner at a very young age and how influential that film was to me and how I viewed science fiction going forward based on that picture. Snowpiercer is very much carved from that mold. It is bold, fresh and original in that sense and I can imagine a young mind being completely and utterly enthralled by the experience as I was by Blade Runner. And of course, both aforementioned films were inspired by books and that takes nothing away from these truly moving pictures. As films, they are truly significant. Like Blade Runner for me, for those young people that see a film like Snowpiercer, their imaginations will forever be inspired and powered such a film. Snowpiercer is very much the epic of a classic like those that inspired me. It's no wonder there was so much buzz surrounding the film and such a clamor for the film prior to its release and a campaign to preserve the director's cut of the film once threatened to be edited for American release.
There isn't much that holds up to repeat viewing for me nowadays, but next to old standbys like Little House On The Prairie (stop your snickering), Star Trek and others, I insist and plead with anyone in my family who will listen, to sit and watch Snowpiercer with me. I beg them all to get on board this sci-fi train and enter this world, but alas if only I could pull them away from the heavy rotation of The Office and Sons Of Anarchy. Well, until then, this conductor is waiting.
Snowpiercer is of the caliber that should resonate with science fiction fans who treasure the genre's long legacy and I suspect the film will be revisited and appreciated even more with time like those aforementioned classics noted in this humble post. Joon-ho strikes again.
Snowpiercer: A. Writer: Bong Joon-ho/ Kelly Masterson. Director: Bong Joon-ho.
Wednesday, December 3, 2014
"What was it?"
"I'm not sure yet. But I've got a very unpleasant theory."
-The Doctor's classic response as only Tom Baker could deliver it-
"I don't think Tom and I ever got it more perfect than in Planet Of Evil. It just escalated into a very warm feeling working with Tom."
-Elisabeth Sladen on her ongoing working relationship with Tom Baker [Doctor Who Magazine #440, p.52]-
You have to love those Doctor Who titles. It's a bit like Fire In Space from the classic Battlestar Galactica. There's a fire and it's in space. There is a planet and it is evil. See Spot run. Run Spot run. It's relatively black and white.
Here we go, into the creative minds of Doctor Who, Season Thirteen, Episode 81, Planet Of Evil. Let me say that again with a little more emphasis and enthusiasm. This is Planet Of Eeeeevil. There we are.
PART ONE: The year is roughly 37,166. And the production and set design is stupendous for these shoestring years. Combined with the scoring there is indeed a mood and atmosphere to Planet Of Evil that is indeed exceptional giving the latest Doctor Who serial a genuine science fiction vibe in the purest sense. There is a real sense of isolation and exploration about a colony on a far distant planet called Zeta Minor that echoes the kind of isolation found in fan favorite The Ark In Space. These are classic science fiction tropes of survival for the sometimes forgotten and disconnected.
Certainly more recent films take these concepts and explore them from Prometheus (2012) back to Alien (1979), Pitch Black (2000) and even The Last Days On Mars (2013) to any number of programs and films that continue to mesmerize on how the human condition responds to such hostile alien environments and foreign conditions. The implementation of actual film is intercut with video, but the film segments are gloriously creepy and resonate powerfully offering a real sense of dislocation on a far flung planet. The look and feel of the set pieces reminds one of the kind of detail and effort that went into Ishiro Honda's Matango (Attack Of The Mushroom People) (1963). The film gives a motion picture caliber quality to the Doctor Who proceedings. In fact, the limitations on lighting or the effort not to light the faces of the principals gives Planet Of Evil an appropriately dark and sinister feel. The use of actual film throughout an entire Doctor Who serial would have been something to see in its entirety back in the 1970s.
Designer Roger Murray-Leach (The Ark In Space, The Talons Of Weng-Chiang) works miracles on a small budget of just 3,700 quid (be sure to watch the documentary A Darker Side for more details).
But will Planet Of Evil hold up beyond the exceptional efforts on the visual front? Can Louis Marks script deliver? These scripts certainly did in the 1970s.
An invisible alien force is taking the lives of those working on Zeta Minor. Receiving a distress call the Doctor and Sarah Jane respond landing the wondrous Tardis on Zeta Minor. The banter between the beloved Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen is becoming as comfortably hand in glove as ever. There is a natural flow to their exchanges and Sladen gives as good as she gets as Sarah Jane continuing to fortify what made their dynamic one of the finest partnerships in Doctor Who history.
And if Planet Of Evil almost reached the caliber and quality established by then neighboring television program and competitor Space:1999, it's made all the more funny with the guest role supplied for Prentis Hancock as Salamar, a member of a Morestran military search party. Hancock, who played Paul Morrow on Space:1999, appears on Planet Of Evil in a solid supporting role sans moustache shaved for the more severe performance here.
One notable scene in Part One spoke volumes regarding the late Elisabeth Sladen. Sarah Jane heads off alone to fetch the spectrometer from the Tardis. We are very much aware that as much as she is a female in a foreign land and as much a girly-girl she is no shrinking violet on Doctor Who. Her natural instincts as a reporter always jump to the fore. She is adventurous, spunky and fearless. It's a reminder of what kind of companion Sarah Jane was and the kind of role model she was for girls in the 1970s in a major supporting role certainly sharing billing with the Doctor. Personally, there is no way in hell I would go traipsing off into the jungles of the Planet Of Evil alone. Hell no. She's a stronger person than me. What does she have to be afraid of? Well, there is more than ample evidence around her to be very afraid. Dead bodies for one. A makeshift graveyard for the dead for two. Yes, lots of death and evil would keep me close to the Doctor's side and possibly out of that alien jungle to boot.
The cliffhanger sees the Forbidden Planet-like outline of a monster approaching the Doctor and Sarah following their escape from the Morestrans who have held them captive on their ship. Forbidden Planet. Planet Of Evil. We constantly see the homage of Doctor Who to science fiction classics under the direction and oversight of Phillip Hinchcliffe.
PART TWO: Sadly the more the story progresses the more we realize the Morestrans should be called the Morons. This is where the writing sometimes fails when scripting could be much smarter back in the day. The military expedition group is not terribly bright and they are equally terrible shots with a ray gun. Later in the segment even the Doctor loses his temper with the Morestrans. "Don't you learn anything. You're tampering with the balance of nature on this planet in ways you don't understand. Do you have any idea what you're up against on this planet?" The Doctor makes it clear that the Planet Of Evil is the antithesis of matter - anti-matter itself. Like those stranded aboard the Galileo in Star Trek: The Original Series, Galileo Seven, or the countless creatures that attacked those aboard the Jupiter II on Lost In Space, the Morestran crew is attacked by a monster of "pure energy." I can hear Information Society playing What's ON Your Mind? and sampling Spock in my head as we speak. The stupidity continues as Salamar sends men to their deaths to fight an unwinnable battle against the creature. "You're tampering with hideously dangerous forces," says the Doctor. The segment ends with the evil pit, a pit that reminds us of the Sleestak pit in Land Of The Lost, which Doctor Who does not predate. They were either fond of that pit or creators in the 1970s enjoyed dangerous pits in general. Who didn't love Atari's Pitfall! (1982). In the end our dear hero, the Doctor, falls helplessly into the pit in another death-defying cliffhanging finale.
PART THREE: After a bit of head-tripping and a mind-altering sequence whereby the Doctor twirls inside the pit in bit of psychedelic-like madness he re-surfaces from the anti-matter vortex into the arms of Sarah Jane. Wow. How is that possible? Those crazy cliffhangers hardly ever amounted to much at all, but damn they were humdingers as kids that left us on the edge of our seats.
It's interesting that the quarantined police box that is the Tardis is rarely of any interest while in quarantine by the Doctor's captors. How could there be no interest in that bloody phone box? I mean it's a British phone box on an alien planet. That is worth checking out. Professor Sorenson is affected by the anti-matter and is on the loose a la monster-on-the-loose Alien or similar to events that occur in the wonderful Force Of Life (1975) on Space:1999. The professor for all intents and purposes has become "The Anti-Man." Fortunately for Space:1999 Force Of Life is a far more affecting and effective piece of sci-fi with a far superior script (Johnny Byrne) coupled with high production value though it does not predate Doctor Who. But it's no contest really. There are even nods to and echoes of Star Trek: The Original Series Where No Man Has Gone Before (1966). One by one men die and the Doctor continues to point out how wrong Salamar and the Morestrans continue to be in understanding the planet below following their launch in an escape jet. With anti-matter aboard the ship they continue to be pulled back to the planet of eeeeeeevil. The segment ends with Sarah Jane and the Doctor moments away from being jettisoned out an airlock of the Morestran vessel and propelled to their deaths.
PART FOUR: So the timely death of another Morestran saves the Doctor and Sarah Jane from their imminent demise. Salamar four segments/parts into the story still can't believe the Doctor and Sarah Jane are anything but combatants proving to be the biggest dullard in the bunch and he was commander until his command was usurped here. Inevitably Salamar meets his fate as does Sorenson with a conversion to the kind of pure energy that transformed actor Ian McShane's character in Force of Life. These lethal forms of energy even made their way into the big ideas behind Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001). These are always high concepts in science fiction but the execution of those stories is critical. Sorenson breaks off into a number of Anti-Men monsters. Ingeniously the Doctor takes the Tardis back to the planet of eeeeeevil and returns the Anti-Man below saving the ship and those that remain as well as Sorenson. It's interesting to see how much the Doctor clumsily flops about in these adventures with that scarf yet remains the coolest being in the entire universe. As kids, we certainly always thought so. Nevertheless for someone who demonstrated moments of awkward, yes, the Doctor was surprisingly awesome.
Classic Doctor Who has its shortcomings and countless imperfections, but one thing it does have that the new series doesn't is genuinely scary and creepy atmosphere partly due to the stone cold truth of budget limitations. There is something terribly unsettling about analogue or low tech effects and a feeling of being right there in the room with it all. State of the art production has a tendency to push you away from the experience or at least elevate its production to a place that seems fantastic in an unbelievable way. Those new Doctor Who episodes can sometimes take you too far away. Classic Doctor Who feels like you could walk down the street and come across these evils and be completely screwed. You know that swamp that sits by your house. The classic Who has all of the atmosphere in spades.
Unfortunately, Planet Of Evil is all fire and brimstone. It's heavy on atmospherics and mood but generally light on substance or matter, not anti-matter, for that matter. If only a bit more scripting heft was in play to match the incredible production efforts and wonderful scoring by Dudley Simpson. Damn all of the latter is very good. Like those Zygon suits, Planet Of Evil looks amazing for its time and budget but is generally light on compelling anti-quark material. It ultimately fails to engage in the manner great science fiction stories should, but it's good for a visit in the Tardis I suppose. Writer Louis Marks (Planet of Giants, The Masque Of Mandragora) probably doesn't hit all the marks with a generally good idea(s). He applies the concept of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson to Planet Of Evil and that theme works to an extent if not entirely successful.
As Phillip Hinchcliffe suggested about Planet Of Evil and the making of Doctor Who in the 1970s, it's often the "speed of the narrative" that sometimes hurts the finished product. Otherwise, the direction by David Maloney (Genesis Of The Daleks, The Deadly Assassin, The Talons Of Weng-Chiang), the production, the performances and the scoring is essentially quite artful and satisfying. Narrative speed and better narrative would be the key.
Also worth noting for me personally is that youthful, intangible feeling that is absent from watching these classics. Through the unfortunate loss of innocence and age these stories lose a bit of their luster. As kids there was a sense that we lived these adventures along with our hero and heroine. We completely bought into the fantasy of it all and filled in the gaps with our vivid imaginations.
I recall quite clearly a sense of real concern for Sarah Jane, a damsel in distress in the 1970s, being all alone in that jungle or any number of circumstances from these early adventures. She always acquitted herself just fine, but I was always relieved to see the Doctor rejoin her company on their adventures and felt she was a little safer for it. I never cared much for seeing either of them all alone. I remember worrying for their well-being as a kid. Of course, I was particularly concerned when it came to Sarah. And, as it was, it was perfectly acceptable back then to fear for that girl in trouble. With Doctor Who, like Romeo Void once sang sang in 1984, that girl in trouble, well, it was always a temporary thing. Still, politics and culture have certainly changed much of how these things should be viewed in the past many decades. Anyway, it was just one of those memories that came flooding back to me while viewing Planet Of Evil once again recollecting through these new but older more discerning eyes.
Gosh, there certainly are pros and cons to these ever-changing eyes. Planet Of Evil is a perfect example of how things can change.
Planet Of Evil: C+. Writer: Louis Marks. Director: David Maloney. Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe.