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This Is the End

Three apocalypse movies — including ‘Transformers’ and the movie of the summer — and another that just feels like one

The end of the world is an outdoorsy thing. The char, dust, and rust, the expansive vacancy, bald plains, naked trees, carless roads, all that abandonment, all that brown: They’re a movie’s surest sign that a disaster has struck. Everything looks like Henry David Thoreau with third-degree burns. Even then, there’s a kind of existential beauty in the desolation, with time to sit and think. Snowpiercer, a nearly great, apocalypse-minded work of science fiction–action and the movie of the summer, is indoorsy. The title refers to a speeding train that slithers — with tremendous violence, in perpetual motion — along its track like an express snake.

For 18 years, the Snowpiercer has been circling a planet that global warming froze. Every year it makes a complete loop. The interiors are dank in the back, brighter and airier toward the front, where the engine is. Who knows how long it took to build this thing, let alone furnish it? But it’s a marvel of production design and art direction. Once under way, the fight for progression (and for progressiveness, too, I suppose) creates artistic suspense: What will the next car look like? And will the director, Bong Joon-ho, use it to stage warfare, comedy, or both? Will he use some of these mordant tableaux as throwaway gags?

The plot moves its unwashed, insurgent proletariat characters from the grimy rear section toward the increasingly pristine front cars. As they shoot, stab, and bludgeon their way forward, past the prison car and the ones with the greenhouse and the aquarium, past the disco, the drug den, the sushi bar, and the sauna, past the meat locker and the kindergarten, it becomes clear that the snake has eaten the end of the world (as well as the selected works of Sergei Eisenstein, Terry Gilliam, Charles Darwin, George Orwell, and Jean-Paul Sartre), and the human shit it has devoured now refuses to exit through the rectum.

So to speak, of course.

The class metaphor is blatant yet acrobatic. “I am the head. You are the foot. Its preordained,” says Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), a vulgar, sniveling overlord, with a Scottish accent and bad hair, glasses, and teeth — Margaret Thatcher in an R. Crumb dream. She says this to the filthy men and women gathered at her feet in near revolt, while holding a shoe: “This is size 10 chaos!” It’s quite a meta-intellectual conceit: The poor and elite know which ends of the assorted metaphors they occupy.

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Previous attempts to capture the engine were unsuccessful. This one should go better — the man leading it played Captain America. Chris Evans plays Curtis Everett, a semireluctant revolutionary. He spends the movie in a beard, heavy coat, and knit hat. Youll want to accuse him of playing a hipster playing a dock worker, but Evans is acting the situation, which is dire. In the busy opening scenes, Curtis’s fellow proles — well played by actors like Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, and, as a decaying sage lovingly named Gilliam, John Hurt — check in and are consulted with. “Is it time?” they ask him. A plump woman named Claude (Emma Levie), dressed in yellow and with a hard, childish face, arrives with soldiers and orders from the front. Soon Claude is taking measure of boys and departing with two, one of them Spencer’s.

The revolt becomes, in part, a rescue mission. Curtis and his mob take the minister and force her to help them pass to the front. She’s just the wicked witch; they want the wizard, and he’s with the engine. As it happens, he’s played by an actor even more shamelessly hammy than Swinton. But the most wonderful discovery arrives with the opening of a morgue refrigerator. That’s a Snowpiercer prison cell, where inmates sleep indefinitely. Out of one drawer rises a disheveled junkie named Namgoong (Song Kang-ho). He knows how to operate the gates between the cars. His price is the release of his rag-doll sidekick, Yona (Go Ah-sung), and a steady supply of a drug called kronol, stinky rocks whose stench can be addictive. These two become the source of the steerage comedy and eventually the movie’s soul.

Bong provides enough glimpses from the windows and snatches of stories from the characters for us to understand just how impossible life is outside the train. This feels very much like an insurgency of moral principle, as opposed to one of practicality. Under the circumstances, death is a kind of freedom. But what’s stirring about this movie is that no one wants to die. More of them might want to, though, if they discovered the main ingredient of the jiggling protein blocks that are the only source of food on the train. It’s not what you’re thinking. (They’ve been down that road, too.) This actually might be worse. 

The script, which Bong wrote with Kelly Masterson (and is adapted from a French graphic novel that began in 1982, Le Transperceneige), is full of digressions and curlicues and some obvious explanatory, redundant dialogue: “We’re all prisoners on this train,” someone helpfully reminds us. But in Bong it also has a filmmaker who’s never running low on inventive imagery or astounding physical orchestration. The camera is nimble, the editing quick. The sort of mass violence of other sagas, conflicts set on both Earth and Middle-earth, are resituated inside this steel can.

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Heretofore, Bong had done amazing work with exteriors, in the crime thriller Memories of Murder, the peerless monster movie The Host, and the grisly melodrama Mother. Each movie takes surprising advantage of outdoor space — and the first two take inspired advantage of song. In Snowpiercer, shots of the tundra feel wistful. Bong used to stage hysterics in marshes and on beaches. Now look! Remembrance is the emotional engine for the characters, too — the taste of steak and cigarettes, the touch of those now dead. But the thrill of the Bong Joon-ho experience comes from the deftness with which he blends tones. The train-compartment structure helps, but even within cars the control of the shifts in mood is astounding; one car’s chirpy satire of fascist education, featuring a note-perfectly nuts Alison Pill, builds into the sort of comic bloodbath that would make even Quentin Tarantino reach for a mop.

American popular culture is skittish about discussing social class and even more terrified about dramatizing the outgrowths of class dissatisfaction. It’s as if the haves who pump out our entertainment don’t want to show human have-nots rattling their cages. Sometimes you get a thoughtful allegory, like the current reincarnation of the Planet of the Apes movies, or a real surprise like Captain Phillips. But the shocking achievement of a show like Orange Is the New Black is its gentle but unrelenting dramatization of class struggle, even — or perhaps especially — in someplace like a women’s prison. The inmates demand their humanity.

Snowpiercer is more diagrammatic about what it’s up to. It’s an action movie. The plot proceeds like a philosophical game. But the image of the film’s great unwashed swaying in unison as the train rocks along the track is a chilling one. To get a movie like this, one that works, near the height of summer feels good. Bong keeps his sick, sideways approach to comedy, yet this isn’t a cheap, happy movie. Its a downbeat spectacle. But very good, unforgettably bizarre, original filmmaking and adventurously explored ideas can leave you feeling high, especially when you don’t know quite how it’s been pulled off. Ingenuity is part of it. The rest just seems like grim magic.

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It’s gutsy to open Snowpiercer on the same day as Transformers: The Age of Extinction. Both have the force to knock you into next week. But only one can actually spell “apocalypse.” Plus, Bong Joon-ho is dramatizing an apocalypse. Michael Bay is the apocalypse. What can you do with a movie whose dialogue both sums itself up (“Dad! There’s a missile in the family room!”) and beats a certain kind of critic to the punch? (“I’m outta ammo and outta ideas!”) Extinction — or, as we should be calling this follow-up to 2011’s third installment, Trans4mers — serves the requisite helping of Bay-area pornography. U.S. flags whip, wag, and billow. The sun sizzles in the sky like a peach on a grill. Men fill T-shirts as well as women do. And world cities are reupholstered with their own debris. 

It barely matters whether this movie is good or bad. Bay is now the sort of filmmaker — the only one, perhaps — whose moviemaking goes beyond such binary banality. He’s as much a general as a director now, one who has demonstrated that he’s one of the last men in Hollywood who can make $165 million look like $400 million. Like the tolerably asinine Dark of the Moon, which laid opulent waste to Chicago, this fourth installment showcases a commitment to oblivion that takes your breath away.

You feel a lot of this crashing digital metal. The sound design (reportedly featuring the input of Skrillex) and effects work are meticulous and convincing — clever, too. It takes a lot of very smart people to make these stupid epics. This time Bay and his army return to finish off Millennium Park and toy with Willis Tower. Then it’s off to treat Hong Kong as if it were Mosul or Fallujah, but with giant robots that turn into automobiles riding robots that turn into dinosaurs. Meanwhile, humans, like Kelsey Grammer’s CIA operative and Stanley Tuccis conceited billionaire inventor, are concerned with attaining more power, fame, and wealth. And Mark Wahlberg has a very good time running around, with the two photo-shoot mannequins playing his daughter and her boyfriend, working with the Autobots to stop the government and Tucci’s company from destroying the planet in the name of protecting it.

Bay knows the disaster-and-combat iconography he’s replicating. He understands the current political events and foreign-affairs topicality in Ehren Kruger’s scripts for these movies, whose ongoing gist concerns battling Transformer factions. Happily for Paramount, theirs, too, is a war without end. Here, we see drones cause a disaster with civilian casualties, and damaged skyscrapers that snow office paper. Wahlberg and some kind of badass CIA-affiliated agent (Titus Welliver) brawl their way down one of Hong Kong’s vertiginous architectural feats, a mega-high-rise apartment complex structured and colored in a way that makes it seem in danger of toppling over as bodies tumble along it like Plinko chips. Bay’s moviemaking is appalling in the way perfume is fragrant. If you dont have a fragrance, you dont have perfume. 

But unlike, say, Edge of Tomorrow, which uses war to imagine a way out of hell, Bay restages toy wars seemingly because he likes dominion over the violence. Tomorrow is about mastering the deadly randomness of war. A Bay action film is about mastery. There is no errant shrapnel with him. This isn’t to say that there’s no energy in these movies. Even at 49, Bay retains an enthusiasm for obliteration similar to what some 8-year-olds feel upon discovering that an armpit can fart too. So, in addition to Transformers flying into buildings, a stadium-sized spaceship sucks up, then shits out, everything from Hong Kong ferry boats and buildings to cars and jet propellers. The city is 426 square miles and holds more than 7 million people. At least half of them are crushed by defecated junk.

You see these Transformers movies and sense that as long as the studios are turning over action and superhero franchises to geeks and hipsters and smarty-pants, Bay will want to keep making these films. He knows how to orchestrate the mayhem that’s now a rite of everything from Marvel sequels to Melissa McCarthy movies. He perfected that mayhem, and now comedians are trying both to duplicate and mock it. I’m sure for Bay this is an insult, like, “What’s next, Amy Schumer in Sophie’s Choice?” These guys are doing bong hits. He’s power-lifting, and nobody lifts more, more loudly. The perverse entertainment of a Michael Bay movie comes from his sincerity. When he destroys your city, your street, your house, he means it.

This movie is as much a self-commentary on waste as Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s 22 Jump Street. But there’s no conflict for Bay, no moral or ironized ambivalence. The quotation marks that Lord and Miller hide behind? Bay would use them as talons or grappling hooks. He finds this epic waste glorious. That enormous thing that craps tonnage on innocent people? It’s him.

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T he Rover is a break from all the concept and noise and kinesis. Haywire has already happened. A title card reports that we’re joining the story “10 years after the collapse.” Indeed, the landscape looks desolate even for the Australian outback, where the movie was shot and set. I’ve seen a lot of these movies. This is one of the very few in which you truly feel as if the living are worse off than the dead.

In the opening minutes, a haggard-looking, hard-faced man (Guy Pearce) sits, forlorn, in his car, with the camera watching from the passenger’s seat, as he stiffens and flies gather around. A kind of emotional rigor mortis has set in. He exits and enters a bar, and a few minutes later criminals on the run have sped off with the man’s car. He slips into the car they’ve abandoned, and a chase picture ensues. He would really like his vehicle back.

David Michôd wrote and directed this movie, and he supplies the same arid relentlessness that he brought to his family crime thriller Animal Kingdom. Bring water. The Rover is about the breakdown of national and civic infrastructure. Just as in Snowpiercer and the Transformers movie, the military has its hand in some aspect of law enforcement and defense policy. It seems Pearce’s character is the last noble man alive. Then he blows someone’s brains out, and later shares a haunted personal memory of an unpunished immoral deed.

Screenwriting keeps him warily in the company of a brother of one of the thieves. The brother is a big, drawling ox, played by Robert Pattinson, who, for now, might be better suited for the adventures to be had in playing brutes and head cases. It’s clearly a Performance, and Pattinson is so committed that Pearce nearly ruptures his absorbing stoicism to seem taken aback. The movie itself is less impressive. It’s studded with fine details, like the use of flies and the glum deployment of Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock,” whose anthemic pride brings the reality of the ubiquitous ugliness into sharper, scarier focus: Is Keri Hilson dead, too? It’s the larger things that are hard to look past. If Pearce is able to drive the thieves’ vehicle with no problem, why couldn’t they? And once he catches up with them the first time, why not simply explain the situation? Here’s why I need my car. Oh, and look: Yours works.

This, you could argue, is how far this world has devolved. Rational discourse has crumbled with it. The truth is that not addressing the matter of the cars permits Michôd to make a fashionable movie in which Pearce and Pattinson go on a violent spree whose means justify the bloodshed. But the deadpan irony of the final sequence feels like the punch line of a mournful but very thin joke.

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Strictly speaking, Third Person isn’t about the end of the world. It’s just made so badly that it feels as if it’s been pulled from a flaming emotional apocalypse. Paul Haggis wrote and directed the movie. He’s also the director of such topical self-aggrandizements as Crash, In the Valley of Elah, and the superbly risible The Next Three Days, in which hood thugs can always be counted on to help dislodge Russell Crowe from a jam.

The new movie futzes with notions of time and structure. The film opens with a writer named Michael gazing pensively at his laptop, and, in minutes, mopes around the globe to find other characters who seem equally forlorn — Adrien Brody staring into a shot glass of limoncello; Kim Basinger staring at a photo of a child on her phone; James Franco bewildered as to why his young son doesn’t want his hands dunked in paint; Mila Kunis in a panicked state; Maria Bello approaching her swimming pool, then recoiling from it. 

Haggis’s mission, as it was with Crash, is to assemble a fractured portrait of loss. But its high pretensions and low stakes deny complete immersion. For more than two hours, you’re like Bello, slowly backing away from the water. You know that the walls separating these characters will evaporate, and Haggis is skilled enough to intrigue you, introducing two reasonably captivating figures of desire. Olivia Wilde’s unstable young writer knocks on the door of Michael’s (Liam Neeson) Parisian hotel room; and Moran Atias is a Roma and possible con woman who leads Brody’s counterfeit businessman on a desperate chase all over Rome. Wilde has entered a place where male directors still need her to be hot, but they’re letting her act, too. Atias puts a beautiful-sad face and a little opera into her sexy-bag-lady part.

But the movie’s ideas of trauma, risk, lust, writing, and talking are mostly a parade of clichés built around parental grief. Everybody’s short fuse and flakiness turn exasperating. It’s watching typos disappear letter by letter as the properly spelled word takes their place. Some of the people who’ll like this movie will appreciate its adult seriousness. But the coincidences and confessions embarrass the people who make them, just as they do in the more absurd films of the Canadian director Atom Egoyan, whose work Third Person seems most possessed by. It’s all in the name of producing clarity, yet the artistic endeavor tying these characters together doesn’t make sense, with creative license or without it. Haggis is force-feeding us overwrought emotion and whimsy, oil and water. It makes sense that these people all seem puzzled. They’re pieces. 

Filed Under: Movies, Michael Bay, snowpiercer, Transformers, guy pearce, the rover, Robert Pattinson, paul haggis, The Third Person, Liam Neeson, Mark Wahlberg

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Wesley Morris is a staff writer for Grantland. He won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his work at the Boston Globe.

Archive @ Wesley_Morris