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Entertainment editor John Turnbull takes a look at two of the latest big screen comic book adaptations, the dark and moody Snowpiercer and the bright and shiny Guardians of the Galaxy.

Snowpiercer

(Directed by Bong Joon-Ho)

A South Korean production, Snowpiercer is somewhat of an oddity among comic book movies, in that it could almost be classified as an arthouse movie if it wasn’t for the big name actors and healthy special effects budget.

Starring Captain America Chris Evans and Elephant Man John Hurt, the film is a social allegory set in a post-apocalyptic world that has frozen following a less-than-successful attempt to fix global warming. The entire film is set on a giant train that encircles the globe, with the ultra-rich inhabiting the front carriages, the middle class in the middle carriages and the disenfranchised poor at the rear.

Director Bong is an accomplished visual stylist, and producer Park Chan-Wook allows his protégé the freedom to tell the story his own way. Unfortunately, it is here that the movie falters, settling for the thematic complexity of a side-scrolling video game.

A grubby Evans leads the revolution from the rear, fighting his way forward with diminishing support and facing increasingly difficult challenges. Accompanying him are the boy formerly known as Billy Elliott (Jamie Bell) and Korean actor Kang-ho Song, who speaks only in un-subtitled Korean.

As the rebels make their way up the train, they pass through a series of increasingly unlikely carriages, including a sauna, hair salon, debauched nightclub and a primary school run by a pregnant machine-gun toting teacher. Up at the classy end of the train are Wilford the evil conductor (Ed Harris) and his functionary Mason, played by a decidedly odd Tilda Swinton.

The real strength of Snowpiercer lies in its visuals — from the haunting images of the super-train rolling through devastated cities to the visceral feel of the fight scenes. In this way the film is closer in sensibility to films like A Better Tomorrow and Only God Forgives than throwaway Hollywood action flicks like The Expendables — often more resembling a piece of moving art than an actual coherent narrative.

Without spoiling the ‘twist’ in the tale, it would be fair to say that Snowpiercer loses serious momentum in the third act, where hyperkinetic action is replaced by exposition and a lazy attempt at moral relativism. Less kind reviewers have compared this scene to the interminable ‘architect’ nonsense in The Matrix sequels, but to be fair what works on the comic book page doesn’t always work on the big screen.

The source material is a French graphic novel called Le Transperceneige, created by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, first published back in 1982.

If you’re one of those people who thinks deeply about the logic behind movies, Snowpiercer may not be for you. If, however, you are able to suspend your disbelief, then Snowpiercer provides a spectacular visual experience and some amazing set-pieces.

See it on the big screen if you get the chance.

Guardians of the Galaxy

(Directed by James Gunn)

When Marvel Studios first announced that they were making an adaptation of third-tier super team Guardians of the Galaxy, many people expressed their doubts.

Up until now, Marvel has based their success around a core group of heroes and the team they make up — the mighty Avengers. Now they’re trying to convince people to go and see a movie about a talking raccoon, sentient tree and second rate Han Solo knockoff.

Fortunately, geek favourite director James Gunn (Slither, Super) stepped up to the challenge and has produced what may be the most entertaining comic book movie in years.

The script (by Gunn and Nicole Perlman) is razor sharp, delivered by accomplished comic performers including Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper and John C. Reilly. Less articulate actors including Vin Diesel and pro wrestler Dave Bautista play to their strengths, with Diesel’s character Groot limited to precisely three words.

The action is well directed and the story moves along at a brisk pace despite the two hour running time.

In the likely event you’ve never heard of the Guardians of the Galaxy, here’s a quick summary...

Back in 1969, Marvel comics introduced a team of cosmic heroes that took on the name Guardians of the Galaxy, featuring characters including Vance Astro, Starhawk and Yondu. Enjoying significantly less popularity than comparable super-teams, the book was rebooted once in 1990 by Jim Valentino and again in 2008. It is from this latest reboot that the movie draws inspiration, with the Guardians comprised of borderline criminals who are as much out for themselves as the greater good.

Aside from the witty script and well shot action sequences, the real joy of Guardians comes from Chris Pratt’s performance as Peter Quill — the man who would really like to be known as Starlord. Pratt has impeccable comic timing, isn’t afraid of making a fool of himself and looks good with his shirt off, all of which should place him in good stead to become the new Ryan Reynolds (hopefully without the limited career trajectory of the last Ryan Reynolds).

In a nice nod to the 1969 original, Michael Rooker has fun with an updated version of Yondu, replacing his massive head-fin with a glowing implant and funky whistle-controlled death arrow.

The only downside of Guardians (aside from a Finding Nemo style opening which may disturb younger viewers) is an area that Marvel movies often struggle — the bad guy. Compared to iconic villains like Heath Ledger’s Joker, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki and Tom Hardy’s Bane, Lee Pace’s Ronan is a complete cipher — a shouty blowhard motivated by a half-explained hyper-racism.

More interesting is Nebula, sister to Guardians member Gamorra and played by former Doctor Who companion Karen Gillan. Gillan brings a genuine pathos to Nebula, and it seems likely she will play a role in future Guardians movies, including the already announced sequel.

The Verdict

If you can find a cinema playing it, Snowpiercer is visually interesting but in terms of pure entertainment, Guardians wins hands down.

Now that most of the obvious comic book movies have been made, we’re going to see more and more deeper cuts like these come to light.

Already announced are left-field projects including Ant Man, Doctor Strange and Shazam, with multiple spinoffs expected from the upcoming Batman vs Superman. While this may sound like a nightmare to those who don’t care for big loud action films, this isn’t necessarily the case.

If directors and studios are willing to take risks like Snowpiercer, there is an amazing wealth of independent graphic novels ripe for development. Consider the potential for a film based on Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan or Art Speigelman’s Maus — challenging stories with the potential to make fascinating movies.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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