DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Opening today, in many theaters, is the fourth in Michael Bay's "Transformer" series, "Transformers 4: Age Of Extinction." It's inspired by the Hasbro toys that turn mostly cars and trucks into robots. Another very different kind of apocalyptic, action movie that rolls out today is "Snowpiercer" by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, who made the acclaimed giant monster film, "The Host." Film critic David Edelstein has these reviews.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Summer's the season when millions of people go to movies to experience their own extinction. Eco-catastrophes, alien invasions, post-apocalyptic battles to the death - fun, fun, fun - or so you'd think given how these scenario sell. Most people go for the sheer spectacle, of course, which is why "Transformers 4: Age Of Extinction" will make a billion dollars.
But there's another, lower budget dystopian film in a limited release that's more invigorating. It's called "Snowpiercer," and it's the first English-language movie by the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. Based on a French graphic novel, it's set on a long, long, long train carrying the frozen Earth's only survivors after an attempt to stop global warming backfires spectacularly. The problem is the population is cruelly subdivided. The Richie Richs lead lives of luxury in front, while the back cars are filled with ragged proles forced to eat protein mush and watch as, seemingly at random, soldiers drag off their children.
"Snowpiercer" centers on a revolt led by Curtis, played by Chris Evans, his pal, played by Jimmy Bell, and others, including John Hurt as Curtis' one-legged mentor and Octavia Spencer as a woman whose son was plucked from her. Their destination is the engine that runs the train called the Eternal Engine in leader's songs and speeches which bring to mind North Korea's tributes to assorted dictators. But first, the rebels must get past the soldiers, bolted steel doors and an especially vicious enforcer, played by Vlad Ivanov.
The action scenes in "Snowpiercer" are choppy and graceless, and many of the actors ham it up. But the combination of B-movie tackiness and broad social satire is strangely potent. As the rebels push through more and more surreal settings - greenhouses schoolrooms, health spas - and rebels fall by the wayside shot, stabbed, disemboweled, the film is like a class-warfare version of "The Poseidon Adventure." The best thing is a barely recognizable Tilda Swinton as a snaggle-toothed authority figure who regularly rebukes the underclass with a portable microphone.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SNOWPIERCER")
TILDA SWINTON: (As Mason) Happy Yekaterina Bridge,
you filthy ingrates. You people who would suck up the generous titty of Wilford ever since for food, shelter. And now, in front of our hallowed water supply section no less, you repay his kindness with violent hooliganism. You scum. Precisely 74 percent of you shall die.
EDELSTEIN: Speaking of the end of the world, many people think director Michael Bay represents the end of movies. Shh, (whispering) don't tell anyone, but I like him. I think the third Transformers film and last year's satirical crime movie "Pain And Gain" were seriously underrated. But "Transformers 4: Age Of Extinction" is nearly three hours, mostly painful. Two words sum up Bay's touch - bloat and chop. Many of his images are amazingly layered. He doesn't sprinkle in computer imagery like MSG, the way George Lucas did in his last Star Wars pictures. The way the alien Transformers turn from cars to behemoths brings out the 12-year-old in me. They're awesome. Those transformations end with a flourish, as if the robots are bodybuilders showing off their muscles.
But Bay has too much testosterone. These are war movies in which the action is indiscriminately show-offy and confusingly scrambled. Noise substitutes for coherence. Speaking of incoherence, the plot involves Kelsey Grammer as a Dick-Cheney-like neo-con who wants to wipe out the Transformers, even the ones who saved Earth in three previous installments. Trying to stop him is flaky inventor Mark Wahlberg, his blonde, teenage daughter in short-shorts and the daughter's Irish boyfriend, who has the distinction of being must more mush-mouthed than Wahlberg. I'm sure there are people less suited to playing scientists than the former Marky Mark with his swollen biceps and streetwise Boston persona. Maybe Justin Beiber? That's all I can think of right now. But I like Wahlberg, and he humanizes the movie. Stanley Tucci is splendidly silly as a billionaire industrialist who's more and more sympathetic to Wahlberg's cause.
But really, "Transformers 4" is a hash. If you do see it, try to appreciate each image as the work of CGI art it is, and forget making sense of the movie. But I suggest passing it up and waiting for the next cinematic apocalypse. Another will come along any day now.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.