At the New Zealand International Film Festival: new films by Ari Folman and Bong Joon-ho, and one gone but not forgotten by Alejandro Jodorowsky.
If science fiction movies are derivative by nature, returning time and again to a handful of stock themes and scenarios inspired by our hopes and fears for the future, what then is the secret to a distinctive take on the genre? Neither The Congress nor Snowpiercer—two long-awaited films from two individualistic filmmakers—reveal in so many words the key to achieving singularity, but their relative originality is also impossible to miss, especially when we’re barely putting up with the likes of Oblivion and Elysium (whose titles even sound the same).
The Congress, Ari Folman’s follow-up to the arresting Waltz with Bashir, employs animation only half as effectively (and incidentally, for just over half its duration). Like the best science fiction, though, it’s the ideas that matter. The Congress isn’t even science fiction to begin with, but a contemporary Hollywood satire critiquing sexism and ageism in the entertainment industry. Its melancholy star, the elegant Robin Wright, negotiates the release of her ‘image’ so it can be preserved by the film studio and replicated digitally for eternity. While there’s no mention of television’s threat to the prestige and popularity of movies here (a medium Wright, contrary to the bleak reality of this film, has found recent acclaim in), other allusions to the state of the industry suggest themselves: Wright’s appearance in Rosanna Arquette’s doco on women in Hollywood, Searching for Debra Winger; Danny Huston’s casting as an intimidating studio executive (as an actor and son of John Huston, he seems intrinsically linked to roles of power and patriarchy in showbiz); his character’s desire to harness Wright’s youth in the form of Buttercup from The Princess Bride, a pitiful damsel-in-distress archetype that I’m sure the actress would renounce today if given the chance; and the secretive boardroom milieu in which events first take place, a setting not far removed from the shadows of Mulholland Drive. When Wright eventually agrees to be “hermetically scanned,” a kind of Faustian pact whereby she relinquishes her identity in exchange for screen immortality (thus allowing the studios to continue their practice of repeating whatever works), she is essentially put out to pasture—as if this isn’t already happening to actresses in Hollywood.
From there, the story leaps 20 years forward and into a psychedelic realm, where Wright’s simulacrum has been transformed into a hallucinogenic, giving ordinary people the chance to escape a post-apocalyptic society for a virtual reality as an avatar of their favourite celebrity. Despite Folman’s devastating use of animation in Waltz with Bashir—where illustration seemed the only appropriate means to confront the nightmares of soldiers who fought in the Lebanon War—the great contradiction of this new film is that as it substitutes conventional live action for surrealist cartoon imagery, it only becomes more literal. The concerns of the opening act suddenly become cluttered amongst timeworn science fiction motifs: artificial experience, utopian/dystopian worlds, the power of illusion, and so on, taken from the Stanislaw Lem novel the film is based on. Folman’s shaping of the narrative, while compelling in its initial form, lacks focus amidst the offbeat visual style curated by animator Yoni Goodman and illustrator David Polonsky, whose cel art recalls Ralph Bakshi’s cult animated features. Couple this with an abundance of ideas that are never quite reconciled into a satisfying whole, and The Congress could easily be dismissed a “fascinating mess” or an “interesting failure.” The notion of flawed ambition, however, is far more stimulating than the banal spectacle of so many big science fiction movies, something Folman implicitly mocks with fake superhero trailers and an amusing caricature of Tom Cruise replete with shit-eating grin.
In the case of Bong Joon-ho’s latest science fiction venture (and his first English language feature), it’s his command of the film that distinguishes it from the pack. Bong’s defining characteristic as a director is his mastery of sudden and unexpected tonal shifts, and although Snowpiercer isn’t on par with his hit monster movie The Host in terms of its tragicomic range and dexterity, it’s yet further proof of his ability to keep the viewer off-balance. For the purposes of Bong’s cinema, it seems fitting that his movies appear derivative on the surface, if only to lull an audience into a false sense of security, and Snowpiercer’s premise certainly has a familiar ring to it on paper. Set in a future where the earth has frozen over (due to a global warming countermeasure gone wrong), it centres on the last remaining survivors who live inside of a state-of-the-art perpetual motion train. Carriages divide the habitat into a passenger class system, with the underprivileged and the elite segregated accordingly—to state the obvious, a microcosm for the capitalist social order.
No imaginary dystopian future would be complete without a violent division between the have and the have-nots, but whereas this science fiction cliché is often wielded portentously (“it’s an allegory!” being the default artistic claim), in Bong’s hands it’s mostly functional, a way of propelling the story forward from the back of the train, where the poorest passengers instigate a revolt (led by Chris Evans and Jamie Bell), through to the front, where the wealthy, including the train’s Oz-like inventor (played by Ed Harris), are living it up in luxury. Indeed, the train is a perfect structural device for Bong’s famous lurches in tone, with each carriage representing a completely new set of circumstances: one moment, the film is dark, bloody, and chaotic, like a fight scene out of The Raid; the next it’s eye-popping and cartoonish, like something imagined by the Wachowskis. Bong’s knack for the unpredictable is also hindered by the linearity of the concept—the action is too neatly compartmentalized, as if rendered across panels in a comic strip—but the fact that this film relies heavily on practical interiors to build its world and is surprisingly light on digital sequences (what CGI there is retains the sloppy charm of the effects seen in The Host) makes it unique in the field of big budget science fiction. Like Folman’s cast list in The Congress (which includes Harvey Kietel, John Hamm, Paul Giamatti, and Kodi Smit-McPhee), the company Bong has assembled for Snowpiercer is nothing to sneeze at, either: John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Song Kang-ho, and notably, Tilda Swinton, whose role here is as attention grabbing as her chameleon act in The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s mythic big screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s “unfilmable” novel Dune has always been imagined as not only a singular entry into the science fiction canon, but one so ahead of its time it would have changed the paradigm of moviemaking in an industry yet to welcome Star Wars and Jaws. Either that, or it would have become the greatest film maudit of all time. It’s all speculation, of course, as the various commentators and collaborators interviewed for this wildly compelling oral history barely intimate, for they are still clearly under the spell of the film’s self-described alchemist, an iconoclast who like other maverick directors of the era found himself in a fleeting position (following El Topo and The Holy Mountain) of infinite creative freedom. Listening to Jodorowsky regale us with tales of the production’s genesis, what it would have looked and sounded like, and who he was able to convince to join him on this extraordinary endeavour (how about artists Mœbius, Chris Foss, and the late H.R. Giger, bands Pink Floyd and Magma, and performers including Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, and Udo Kier?), it’s also hard not to be swept up in the insane possibilities of what might have been.
The genius of Jodorowsky’s Dune, the documentary, isn’t so much the story of the film-that-never-was, recounted vividly for posterity, or even the beautiful storyboards and concept art collected in a rare tome that director Frank Pavich allows us to almost reach out and touch, but the way it bottles the intense belief, enthusiasm, vision, and earnestness behind the project, all of which is filtered through Jodorowsky’s mad charisma as a “spiritual warrior” still fighting the war between art and commerce into his eighties. In times when we are bombarded by aggressive movie marketing and endless social media hype, the maxim of “the idea is often better than the reality” is exquisitely captured by this film—an ode to the power of imagination—and also depressingly spotlighted, an echo of Jodorowsky’s conviction that “movies are an art more than an industry.”