Some time has passed since the dead rose up to feast on human flesh and what's left of mankind is making
the best of it. The people have cordoned themselves off from the zombies--or "stenches " as they are so
lovingly referred to--behind the walls of a fortified city where they try to maintain an illusion of life
as it once was. Supplies and food are still needed so a hardened group of mercenaries--headed by Riley
(Simon Baker) and Cholo (John Leguizamo)--run retrieval missions into the vast wasteland using little tricks of the trade to keep the zombies at bay. Back in the city however things aren't so hunky dory. The wealthy and powerful lead by the slimy Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) dwell in a swanky and exclusive high rise and rule over the working class while the disenfranchised peeps on the streets stew over their lot in life. But they aren't prepared for what happens next. Seems the army of the dead are evolving learning to organize and communicate with one another. And they don't take too kindly to getting shot in the head. The only thing the humans have going for them is the fact the zombies still don't move very fast--but that's not saying much.
It's tough for an actor to shine in a horror flick in which the gore and special effects make-up are pretty
much the main attraction--but the Land of the Dead cast do their best. You've got Baker (The Ring Two) as the kindhearted hero; character actor Robert Joy as Baker's mentally challenged sidekick but who's also a wicked sharpshooter; the lovely up-and-comer Asia Argento as a tough-as-nails street chick willing to help out; Leguizamo as the wisecracking mercenary with a major chip on his shoulder and firepower to back it up. And then there's Dennis Hopper. He's playing it pretty straight this time around as the evil and greedy rich guy who doesn't really consider himself the villain considering he was the one who built the fortified city. But a little of the weird Hopper pops through every once in awhile. Of course we've also got the hordes of evolving dead walkers lead by a particularly fearsome zombie. With a bloodcurdling zombie battle cry this badass teaches his comrades to take up arms beat down walls and walk under water. Resourceful fellow.
You can thank George Romero for giving us flesh-eating zombies. If not for his 1968 cult classic Night of the Living Dead we wouldn't have 28 Days Later or Evil Dead--and we'd be a much duller place without them. Now 20 years after he made the last Dead movie Day of the Dead Romero is ready to hurl body parts at us again. Maybe after he saw how well they remade his Dawn of the Dead last year he felt he could do it even better. Not quite. Sure Romero has definitely grown up and improved his writing. Land of the Dead does a nice job moving things along showing how the survivors have adapted to living with their "neighbors" but never really learning much from the experience. Romero also has brought a certain pathos to the zombie. They move around as if in a daze also trying to maintain a semblance of what they used to be--human. And frankly they are tired of being labeled mindless idiots who do nothing but wander about. Dammit. If you prick them do they not bleed? But with all the gratuitous violence and hardly any of the Dawn remake's humor or irony Land of the Dead doesn't really distinguish itself from any of Romero's other gore-filled zombie flicks.
Based on Chris Van Allsburg's enchanting award winning children's book the story begins on a snowy Christmas Eve where a doubting young boy lies in his bed waiting to hear the sound he doesn't know if he believes in anymore: the tinkle of Santa's sleigh bells. What he hears instead however is the thunderous roar of an approaching train where no train should be: it's the Polar Express. Rushing outside in only a robe and slippers the incredulous boy meets the train's conductor who urges him to come onboard. Suddenly the boy finds himself embarking on an extraordinary journey to the North Pole with a number of other children--including a girl who has the tools to be a good leader but lacks confidence; a know-it-all boy who lacks humility; and a lonely boy who just needs to have a little faith in other people to make his dreams come true. Together the children discover that the wonder of Christmas never fades for those who believe. As the conductor wisely advises "It doesn't matter where the train is going. What matters is deciding to get on." Gives ya goose bumps doesn't it?
Talk about a vanity project for Tom Hanks. He portrays several of the characters in the film--the conductor the hobo who mysteriously appears and disappears on the Polar Express the boy's father. Wait isn't that Hanks playing Santa Claus as well? But if anyone can pull off some cheesy dialogue about the spirit of Christmas this Oscar-winning actor can. Interestingly the film also incorporates adults to play the children (none of the characters have names actually) with Hanks as the Hero Boy; Hanks' Bosom Buddies pal Peter Scolari as the Lonely Boy; The Matrix Revolutions Nona Gaye as the Hero Girl; and veteran voice actor Eddie Deezen as the Know-It-All Boy. Everyone does a good job but trying to make CGI-created people seem real is a difficult undertaking. With
The Polar Express director Robert Zemeckis has created an entirely new way to do computer animation called "performance capture." "[It's a process that] offers a vivid rendering of the Van Allsburg world while infusing a sense of heightened realism into the performances. It's like putting the soul of a live person into a virtual character " visual effects wizard and longtime Zemeckis collaborator Ken Ralston explains. Oh is that all? Problem is no matter how hard they try it doesn't work--not completely. Similar to flaws in the 2001 Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within virtual characters just can't convey human emotion as well as real-life actors plain and simple. And with a touching story like Polar Express that real-life connection is missed at times.
Of course like the images in the book it's still an exceptionally beautiful film to watch. Zemeckis enjoys being a filmmaking innovator. He charmed audiences with a lively blend of live action and manic animation in the 1988 classic action comedy Who Framed
Roger Rabbit? and then wowed them with the 1994 Oscar-winning Forrest Gump blending authentic archival footage of historic figures with the actors. Now with The Polar Express it's this performance capture which gives Zemeckis unlimited freedom in creating the world he wants. And boy does he make use of it. True the story is a classic but the director knows he has to make The Polar Express exciting for the tykes-- simply riding around in a train to North Pole without any thrills certainly wouldn't be enough for the ADD world we live in. To accomplish this the film is padded with exhilarating scenes such as the train going on a giant roller coaster ride through the mountains and across frozen lakes (too bad Warner Bros. doesn't have a theme park) and the boy's race across the top of the snowy Polar Express. Even the North Pole is a booming magical Mecca filled with some pretty boisterous (and weird looking) elves who like to send Santa off in style Christmas Eve--watch out for Aerosmith's Steven Tyler making a cameo as a jammin' elf. Ho-ho-ho!