I get elated whenever I see true science-fiction films being made. It’s tough to the find them, when Hollywood puts out a lot of “science-fiction” films, which mostly are just action or thrillers that involve robots or aliens. True science-fiction uses technological advancements to reflect on the human condition — often sounding the alarm for a particular problem that humankind could plausibly fall into. Snowpiercer (2013) does just that. It sounds the alarm for global warming and the fallout that could befall when trying to fix the symptoms and not the causes. In the film, many countries of the world come together to release a chemical into the atmosphere that will lower temperatures to a more manageable range — except that the chemicals work so well or too much of the chemical was used and the world is plunged into an extreme Ice Age. All humanity is lost — except for the men and women who boarded Snowpiercer, a revolutionary train that is self-contained, whose shell protects against both intense heat and extreme coldness, with trains devoted to sustaining plant life, marine life, and cultural life: especially the nuances of class politics.

Its aboard the train where the social reflection occurs in this science-fiction film. How would a confined ecosystem of human beings aboard a train that cycles the earth over and over again act? My naive hopefulness thinks that if one train contains the last remnants of humankind, there would be friendship and companionship and a kinship, a shared experience of surviving aboard an everlasting train. But no, no, no. I’m much to naive to for human nature. Director Joon-ho Bong, delves into social politics to show a gripping and bleak social construct about Snowpiercer. It seems that even until the end of humanity, class will be ever present. Aboard the train, the wealthy relax and enjoy the front cars of the train, and the scum and unfortunates slum and scrounge in the back of the train. Curtis (Chris Evans) is one of the poor desolates in the back of the train. He’s taking the time to plan a rebellion, to get his people food and showers and clothes. What’s the point of surviving the end of days when you’re filthy and starving? His trek through the film — and through the train — is a efficient yet poignant way for director Bong to unveil what exactly is on the train. Just as Curtis and his gang finds out as they trudge from car to car, so does the audience, giving us a shared experience with the characters on the screen.

Chris Evans gives a sensitive performance, a refreshing change of pace from his usual super hero or action roles. He particularly shines in a scene in the third act where he describes life at the back of the train when first boarded. He delivers a raw and guilty monologue that’s quite stirring. Tilda Swinton plays Mason, the right-hand spokesperson to Wilford (Ed Harris) who maintains the idolized engine. She creates a hodgepodge of monstrous historical figures with her character, a dogmatic and obstinate woman who sits unflinchingly as a rebellious man’s frozen arm is smashed to pieces in front of his peers. She establishes a look of a frumpy middle-aged woman, almost like an evil school teacher — which, in my mind, linked to another monstrous figure: Dolores Umbridge. Octavia Spencer plays vengeful mother Tanya, whose child was mysteriously taken away from the back of the train. She becomes a voice for the poor and suffering of the back of the train, and she joins Curtis in his mission. An interesting observation to make aware is that the people of the back of the train are very diverse ethnically, while the majority of the people seen in the better compartments of the train are white. Spencer described the people in the back of the train as: “We are all covered in smoke and dirt from years and years of not washing and particles in the air, and we are all the same color if you look at it.” That brings the people together in a common cause, which I feel is pretty effective in the film.

The first two acts play out to leave you with a certain expectation for the third act, which then takes a step in a different direction. It’s quite similar to what happens in the third act of Cabin in the Woods, where expectations are defied and an actual plan and system is revealed that explains what was originally considered chaos. Curtis has a choice to make, to either continue life as usual or to take the helm of the very thing he wanted to destroy. What struck me most about this film is Curtis’ decision. What’s the use of sustaining human life if it comes at this cost?

The Avengers

The Avengers (2012) is an epic superhero film written and directed by Joss Whedon. It is an origins story, following the events of S.H.I.E.L.D to develop The Avengers Initiative, which leads to the coming together of The Avengers. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and is the third-highest-grossing film, over $1 billion.

The expectations for the film were nothing shy of brilliant once Joss Whedon was announced as director for The Avengers. An avid comic book fan and an amazing writer, the coming together of multiple superheroes into one film was in very good hands. Whedon has commented on The Avengers as a group, saying: “These people shouldn’t be in the same room let alone on the same team—and that is the definition of family.” He delves deeply into that sentiment in the film, exploring the conflicts between strong personalities and haughty egos. Whedon is well-known for fleshing out characters, and that’s the most interesting part of this film. He makes the joining forces of these various superheroes feel real and believable. Most of the film is set up as scenes with pairs of characters, which gives the actors a chance to perform with different personalities as well as the audience the chance to see the characters interact with everyone. Examples of this include: 1) when Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) meeting with Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) in India to convince him to answer S.H.I.E.L.D’s call for help or 2) when Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) fight each other to (try to) show their dominance over the other. These scenes are incredible because they show a side to the characters that aren’t seen very often in these characters’ solo films. Tony Stark is always in charge in his films, but now he has to work together with others. Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is the ultimate soldier but has to come to terms with the fact that everybody he’s ever known or cared for is dead and learn to interact with people “of the future”. The way Whedon creates these scenes is insightful, as it deconstructs the illusion that groups of superheroes, like The Avengers or the Justice League, would automatically come together in selflessness for the greater good. Egos must be thrown aside (in Stark’s case) and personal conflicts must be embraced (in Banner’s case) in order to work together. The basic goal for these scenes is for Whedon to show the journey for the characters to build trust, for trust will be the most important force linking their chain together.

Another classic Whedonism found in The Avengers is the witty banter and clever writing. The film’s popularity and high praise has a lot to do with the writing, elevating the “superhero genre” up to match various other genres in terms of quality and artistry.
On the topic of classic Whedonisms, Black Widow’s character must be discussed. Whedon has created a myriad of strong female characters, including Buffy Summers in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Echo in Dollhouse (Eliza Dushku), and Zoe Washburn from Firefly (Gina Torres). He promotes and advocates for strong women in media, and he delivers yet again with Black Widow. Her introduction scene has her tied to a chair, being interrogated by Russian criminals. She appears to be in a weak and helpless position, as if she were captured and at their mercy. Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) calls the Russian criminals and asks to speak to Romanoff. She talks to him like he’s interrupting her interrogation, not that she’s helpless and in need of saving. He urges her to come in, saying it’s urgent, and she consents. Then, she shows the audience that she was always in control of the situation. She begins a fight, disables the Russian criminals, and walks out calmly, after picking up her heels. This is classic Joss Whedon, who sets up scenes with a particular female stereotype and destroys it right then and there. A classic example is the pilot episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A high school boy is taking what appears to be a timid high school girl somewhere private after school hours. She’s hesitant and timid. Whedon sets up that scene as the high school blonde girl who gets herself in a powerless situation, but the high school girl turns out to be Darla (Julie Benz), a vampire who was in fact seducing the high school boy. Black Widow and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) are incredibly strong women who are perfectly capable and in control of their situations. Hill does follow orders from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), but she basically runs the organization and makes things happen. Romanoff, like Darla in Buffy, plays around with female stereotypes in an incredible scene with Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the film’s big bad and adopted brother to Thor. She’s speaking with Loki, and he begins to simmer in his masculine intimidation, picking apart her intentions as she buckles under the harshness of his words. In his hubris, he lets slip his next move. Immediately, Romanoff resumes her strong posture and stoic face and we realize that she was playing him the entire time. Whedon keeps destroying female stereotypes. With so many modern reboots in popular franchises, there are attempts to modernize female characters who were previously stuck in antiquated female stereotypes, like Uhura in Star Trek. In J.J. Abrams reboot in 2009, the entire cast got a jumpstart, including Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana), who at times was the catalyst for the plot continuing forward. Unfortunately, half way through the film, Uhura was tossed aside as merely a romantic interest for Spock (Zachary Quinto). While there are teases and hints at something between Romanoff and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) in The Avengers, Romanoff’s character place in the group is never diminished or looked down upon. As Johansson has said about her role in The Avengers, she always felt like one of the guys, not the only woman in a group of guys.
Whedon’s vision for The Avengers is a masterful balance of character development and excitement. He blends together a modern realization of his characters with clever writing and a smooth and realistic filming style. He succeeded in bringing together a group of ultra-strong personalities, both in character and in person, while also elevating the “superhero genre” up to challenge other “respected” genres. The sequel, which is will be released in 2015, will no doubt be just as exciting and successful.