I love science fiction movies. The joy I take from their combination of interesting ideas and cool spectacle mean that I’ll enjoy some pretty shallow stuff. But in the past week I’ve belatedly watched two films that combine sci-fi awesomeness with real depth and incredible style. That makes me incredibly happy.
Before we go any further I have a confession to make – I’m a little bit in love with Snowpiercer‘s star Chris Evans. I know, I know – I’m married, straight and live thousands of miles from Hollywood. But dammit, I cannot get enough of that guy. He was a cool Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four, a wonderfully obnoxious Lucas Lee in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, and even made Captain America into my favourite big screen superhero. I’m British, proudly European and intensely suspicious of patriotism, yet he made me cheer for the guy wearing the stars and stripes. He is the king of comic book movie adaptations. His presence alone was enough to make me watch this one.
Evans does put in another good performance, as do the many talented actors in the cast. But that’s not what made me love this film. What did that was the incredible sense of style.
Set in a post-apocalyptic future in which the surviving humans live on a giant train, Snowpiercer is incredibly visually striking. The interiors of carriages are distinct and fascinating, the costumes evocative, and it’s full of stylishly shot moments that enhance rather than distract from the plot.
The plot itself is a story of class struggle, in which Evans’s character Curtis leads a revolt against the oppressive upper class living in luxury at the front of the train. There’s meaning behind the action. This isn’t a simple Marxist polemic encouraging us through metaphor to strike off the shackles of oppression. As the story progresses it examines the cost and value of such a revolution, and asks whether it can ever succeed. Yes, it’s all obviously symbolic, but that’s no bad thing. Films should mean something.
Ghost in the Shell
I’ve only dabbled in watching anime, but I’d still heard enough about Ghost in the Shell to know that it would be worth my time. A near future detective thriller, it’s about a cyborg cop trying to hunt down the criminals hacking people’s brains.
Like Snowpiercer, Ghost in the Shell alternates scenes of incredible action with stretches of stillness and contemplation. It doesn’t just give the viewer time to catch their breath, it forces them to stop and contemplate what’s going on, as the animators present us with stunning visuals of rain-soaked streets, showing that there’s a wider city and society beyond the immediate action, and that the lives of other people in that city matter too.
Given its cast of cyborgs, robots and hacked brains, Ghost in the Shell inevitably raises questions about what it is to be human, and where the boundaries of humanity lie. Can a robot really be a person? If we could hack brains, would that reduce us all to machines? It doesn’t hammer the point home too often, but even its action brings the question forward, as characters we think of as people go through things no human body could.
Finding Our Own Meanings
Made eighteen years apart, these films have only come together in my mind because of the accident of watching them in the same week. But they both show such style, depth and excitement that they reminded me of how good sci-fi films can be, and that for all the shallow blockbusters, sometimes there are deep ones too.