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Watching the Future: From Other Shores

Movies treated science fiction well this summer, in terms of quality and popularity. The period between the middle of April and the Labor Day weekend saw the release of four major motion pictures—Godzilla, Edge of Tomorrow, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Guardians of the Galaxy—that not only fit comfortably within any reasonable definition of the genre (which often stretches to include superhero movies and the kinds of action fantasies that seem a cross between Three Days of the Condor and The Andromeda Strain mixed with the pace of Raiders of the Lost Ark, to the point that the defining material becomes so thin that it resembles Silly Putty pulled so tightly across a newspaper’s surface that one can read the headline through the dermis-colored, taffy-like material) but also allowed one the pleasure of watching without feeling the need to scour one’s brain beneath a chemical shower after the end credits rolled. Yes, studios served some unpalatable cinematic dishes—both Transformers 4: Age of Extinction and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles passed through multiplexes quickly, leaving unsuspecting viewers with only the mildest cases of cultural indigestion, while The Purge: Anarchy and The Giver made one leave the theater feeling as if having snacked on two five-pound bags of Haribo sugar-free gummy bears—but for the most part, the summer served genre fans with reasonably entertaining, if modestly satisfying, offerings.

Perhaps “modestly satisfying” belittles what otherwise is an impressive foursome. After all, Edge of Tomorrow demonstrates more brain than one normally associates with most summer blockbusters—its time-looped storyline actually makes sense within the world it creates, and comes to a logical conclusion. By contrast, Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest widget to come off the assembly line of Marvel’s perpetual entertainment machine, embraces the B-picture charm of Battle Beyond the Stars and Star Crash on an A-movie budget, in line with much of the studio’s other fare. The reimagining of Gojira proved enjoyable if predictable, and still provided fans with the giddy excitement they always hoped for, while Dawn of the Planet of the Apes disappointed only in relation to its predecessor.

And yet, a sense of familiarity and similitude suffused through all four. Though they entertained, none really broke new ground in terms of storytelling or style. Edge of Tomorrow brought videogame sensibilities to the standard thriller story by running Tom Cruise’s callow William Cage through the same day over and over again, but it still followed the same plot skeleton most students learned in high school English. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes started with a daring opening credit sequence and a breathtaking, dialogue-free hunt through the woods surrounding a postapocalyptic San Francisco before finally settling into a standard, perfectly serviceable action movie, complete with two-dimensional humans tapped in three-dimensional set pieces. Guardians of the Galaxy is the genre’s seasonal darling, though I imagine it will be dumped once a hotter property flickers through auditoriums. Their quality—especially in terms of the modern summer blockbuster—distinguishes them, yet they feel indistinguishable, as if they all came from the same moviemaking factory.

One need look at three radically different movies to understand how similar these four movies are, regardless of their entertainment value. Snowpiercer, The Congress, and Mood Indigo all hail from three different countries, and so bring divergent sensibilities to their subject matter. They have their faults—indeed, two of the three can best be described as interesting failures—but they possess the distinction of being singular visions, distinctive in their approaches and ideas, and therefore stylistically and structurally unlike each other.

Of the three, the South Korean actioner Snowpiercer is the most accessible to American audiences, which perhaps is why its American distributor took a chance with a limited release this summer. Directed by Bong Joon-ho, who directed the exceptional monster movie The Host, it boasts a few faces recognizable faces, including Chris Evans, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spenser, and Ed Harris, as it barrels through its allegory of modern society and revolution. It also moves, like its titular vehicle, at brisk speed, filling its two-hour-plus running time with enough melees, gunfights, and political machinations to almost cover up how utterly daft most of it is on a purely pragmatic level.

Set in 2031, Snowpiercer takes place on a large train traversing a track that circles a world radically altered in an attempt to avert the worst elements of climate change. Its inhabitants reside on its cars in a rather typically stratified society, its one-percenters living a life of luxury near the front while the rest live in the trains rear cars, kept there by armed police forces. Eventually a revolt ensues, orchestrated by Gilliam (Hurt), the tail’s spiritual leader, and led by Curtis Everett (Evans), which serves not only to dramatize the challenges of fighting against its system but also to demonstrate the many layers of society as the rebels fight their way to the engine (from hydroponic food and education cars, to more exotic areas such as nightclubs and saunas). Joon-ho resists the urge to stop much of the action to explain this snow-covered world, teasing it out instead through a flurry of news reports as Snowpiercer opens and a classroom discussion of the history of the perpetual motion engine that treks across the planet.

As cinema, Snowpiercer surprises with how engaging it is, despite the daftness of its premise. It asks the audience to buy much from what is at heart an incredibly silly premise, even more silly than Battleship or any entry in the G. I. Joe franchise, until one realizes that it is best thought of as allegory instead of science fiction. The titular train thus becomes an engine of cognition on which its thought experiment might be conducted, as did the metropolis-on-wheels of Christopher Priest’s sublime novel Inverted World or the breathtaking isolated cityscape of Alex Proyas’s Dark City. This perhaps will annoy strict literalists who prefer either more realism structuring a work’s basic premise or more muted symbolism, but those willing to travel with Snowpiercer’s larger will find its ride far more fascinating.

The jettisoning of realism also might alarm the unwary viewer of Ari Folman’s The Congress, a more true quill science fiction movie from France, though in this case viewers might object more to the execution than the premise. Taken from Stanislaw Lem’s exceptional The Futurological Congress, Folman (who also wrote the screenplay) jettisons Lem’s hapless cosmonaut Ijon Tichy as well as the pointed, biting Malthusian satire involving authoritarian governments mandating illusions for its citizens in favor of the actress Robin Wright (playing herself) and her decision to sell her digital image to the equally authoritarian Miramount Studios. Once her body and emotions are scanned into its computers, they begin to make movies with their computer-imaged property, and Wright agrees never to act again. Two decades later, she attends the Futurological Congress, where Miramount will unveil their new technological breakthrough: an illusion that allows one to transform oneself into an animated avatar. Miramount wants to sell her likeness, and she reluctantly agrees. When rebels opposed to the technology attack the Congress, she witnesses her own execution and has a mental breakdown. When she awakes years later, earth has become a paradise without war and poverty, though things are, of course, not as they appear…

Folman’s picture alternates between live action and animation, at times to incredible effect—his vision of a posthuman, ribofunk future is particularly arresting, and practically mandates the use of animation, as live-action filming might have been prohibitive—and, within the context of the movie, makes a good deal of sense, though how the animation transformation works is never explained. Additionally, The Congress no sooner addresses the issues it raises—digital rights, the future of entertainment—before suddenly discarding them in favor of the more Philip K. Dickian material of the novel. Its transcendent ending also feels tacked on. The Congress feels as if it somehow misses an opportunity, playing within safe terrain, and thus making its execution far more compelling than its content.

Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo, by contrast, only seems to play in similarly safe terrain. Ostensibly a typical love story, Gondry adapts Boris Vian’s Froth on the Daydream into a hyper-surreal tale of love and loss in which the exterior world mirrors its protagonist Colin’s (Romain Duris) own state of being.

Rich and joyous, Colin has a pleasant life, but becomes jealous of his friend Chick’s (Gad Elmaleh) sudden romance with Alise (Aïssa Maïga), and decides that he, too, wants to fall in love. At a party he meets a woman named Chloe (Audrey Tatou), with whom he falls in love and eventually marries. But their happiness is short-lived; Chloe falls ill on their honeymoon, forcing Colin to find work to pay her medical bills. (At one point, he takes a job as a gun manufacturer with an…unusual way of making firearms.) As her condition deteriorates, Colin grows more and more despondent.

In synopsis, Mood Indigo sounds typical and unmemorable, but Gondry, who directed the science fiction love story Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, sets everything in a surreal world that seems born from the energy of Luc Besson (notably The Fifth Element) and the aesthetics of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. In this world, doorbells transform into ringing bugs that must be smashed with hammers, Colin and his friends enjoy drinks played from a piano (called a “pianocktail”), and races prefigure wedding ceremonies, with only the winners being wed. Like Snowpiercer, Mood Indigo is not science fiction in any traditional sense, but it certainly possesses the genre’s sensibilities, and, like any of the movies listed here, just might appeal to those fans who want to step out of the constricting cinematic box Hollywood we too often find ourselves in each summer.

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