5 Ways to Prep: Murder on the Orient Express
By George Rose
November 9, 2017


It’s hard to get excited about writing this week’s article. Last weekend, Thor: Ragnarok kicked off the winter movie season in style with a Marvel-ous $123 million debut. Next weekend we have Justice League which is hoping to top that number but, even if it does, we will still laugh at it anyway. I mean, there’s no way the movie turns out good. Changes in director, extensive reshoots and a generally laughable track record for DC Comics is going to leave this one stinking of disappointment no matter how much it earns but the superhero box office battle royale makes it worth watching. Sandwiched between these two comic book behemoths is Murder on the Orient Express, a star-studded mystery that’s aiming to entertain adult audiences.

A few weeks ago, Orient Express was shaping up to be a surprise hit and was one of the more anticipated releases of November. It had everything going for it. Based on the classic Agatha Christie mystery novel about a man murdered on a train with all the suspects trapped together? Check! Directed by a modern visionary? Kenneth Branagh directed both Thor and Cinderella, which are amazing, so it could be argued that he is a master of updating “classic literature”. So, yeah, that’s a check. Super mega awesome A-list cast? You betcha! We’ve got Branagh himself, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley and many more. With all this and great trailers, how could it be anything but a blockbuster?

Well, nobody cares about “Which of those dozen passengers killed that one guy?” when you can turn on the news to answer the real life question of “Who was that one Hollywood guy that raped dozens of women?” It’s hard to focus on one fake murder when nearly hundreds of people have come forward in the last two weeks about getting sexually assaulted by Hollywood big shots. And as much as I would loooooooove to dive deeper into that scandal, that’s not this week’s mission. Early reviews are in and Orient Express is hovering around 65% positive. That’s not bad but… it’s not great. It needed great. There’s too much talent in front of and behind the camera for it to be anything but great. So, even though 30% positive is amazing for a Madea movie, 65% is kind of garbage for such a prestige pic. What those critics might have lacked is proper preparation for this new feature film so here’s hoping that the following five ways to prep makes your trip on this murder train more enjoyable.

Way to Prep #1 - Snowpiercer (2014)

The problem with a movie set almost entirely on a train is… the train. Trains suck. They’re small, they smell, they’re one step up from taking the bus and about a hundred steps below taking a quick plane ride. There’s usually nothing to do on a train and there’s never enough leg room. Most places that trains go are barren wastelands so there’s nothing to do outside. I imagine it’s harder to catch a killer in a city than on a train; there’s more places to go, more suspects and a very small chance the truth is revealed. On a train, there’s only like a dozen other people and you sort of expect that they are all murderers when you get on board because, well, you’re on a train. And in Orient Express, it’s a sleeper-car train. Do those even exist anymore? Probably not because it’s such an old concept and there’s faster ways to travel now. I’m probably wrong but I’ll never know because I have always assumed trains were the worst way to travel. Well, that was until I saw Snowpiercer. Turns out, you can do a lot with trains.

Chris Evans stars as a poor guy stuck at in the caboose of a train that houses the entire population of the world, or what remains of it. After the planet is covered in an eternal winter, some rich guy decided to build a train that never stops running as it circles the globe. Naturally, class warfare takes over with poor people in the back and rich people in the front. Evans and his merry band of bag ladies decide to fight their way forward and take over. Because this is a movie on a train, it seems simple. However, this futuristic interpretation of the apocalypse allows for the possibility of an entire civilization surviving together on a train and that allows for endless possibilities of how those train cars are presented to us. There’s shanty cars where water is purified and bugs are ground up into candy bars, middle class trains with farm animals and classrooms, and there’s classy cars with aquariums and dance clubs. Aside from just being a great movie, what this film showed us is that you can’t underestimate a train and you can’t underestimate Hollywood. With the right set design you can make a square foot feel like a mile and Snowpiercer is a masterclass in making a mountain out of a molehill. If Orient Express can make their train feel like half of what Snowpiercer gave us then we are in for one epic mystery.

Way to Prep #2 - The Simpsons: Who Killed Mr. Burns? (1995, Episodes 128 & 129)

In Orient Express we are meant to wonder who of the passengers on the train killed some old rich dude that everybody probably hated anyway. I never read the book and I never saw the original movie, but I’m pretty sure I’ve already heard the big twist ending somewhere along the line. This classic murder mystery has ridden on the back of this twist ending for decades and most fans of the story already knows what’s going to happen. For the rest of us, we are asked to play along and guess who the big bad guy (or girl) is. Murder mysteries aren’t a new concept and they have been done a thousand times before. Train movies have been done, ensemble casts have been brought together and boring stories have been told with visual flair to liven them up. We’ve seen all of this. This is November filler at it’s best. What can turn this filler into fluff is this big twist ending. It will make or break the film for those unaware of the classic story.

One example of how this twist ending can fall flat on its face is if it follows the path of the classic Simpsons murder mystery. During the peak of my childhood and the Simpsons legendary run on television was the biggest mystery of 1995. Just before the summer started The Simpsons ended their sixth season with the shocking shooting of the town’s most rich and powerful douche bag. The audience was asked to play along and guess who killed Mr. Burns. We watched, we waited and we debated for months. When the seventh season premier finally arrived, we learned the shooter was… Maggie Simpson?! Murder mysteries are only fun when the killer ends up being someone you had the ability to actually guess but didn’t expect. Having the killer be a baby that only shot the victim as the result of some infantile accident is just plain cheating. Sure, nobody expected it but that’s because it wasn’t really worth considering. If you make the baby a killer, why not have the dog trip over a gun and shoot Mr. Burns. Nobody will guess that either! Mysteries are good when they reveal a truth, not expose an accident. Here’s hoping that Orient Express has an actual killer and not some nonsense trickery.

Way to Prep #3 - Clue (1985)

Based on one of the best board games around, Clue was a movie adaptation of the story we all know and love. A couple of guests are invited to a house, the host of the party is murdered and everyone is a suspect. The game has us investigate who the killer is, what weapon they used and what room they did the deed . The movie turns this premise into a murder mystery comedy, full of laughs and death. The problem here was that the producers of the movie made THREE different versions with THREE different killers. The different versions were released to different locations across the country in an attempt to create demand for repeat viewings. The plan failed and the film bombed at the box office. It was destined to live on as great movie to watch on TV but has been plagued by these multiple versions because now all three are shown with the movie. After it stopped playing in theaters, all three endings were tagged onto the feature and that’s what we get whenever we see it on TV. Turns out, the only thing worse than having the killer be a baby is to have three killers across three different versions. If Orient Express can settle on just one or two killers with a clear vision it will make finding the truth worth the hunt.

Way to Prep #4 - Murder on the Orient Express (1934 novel by Agatha Christie)

I imagine the classic book is better than original movie because, well, it’s the source material. However, I have a theory about book-to-movie adaptations: watch the movie first, read the book second. I have always lived by this theory and it has worked wonders for me. I loved Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and, yes, even Twilight. Those movies were great because I never read the books, so I wasn’t pissed as I watched the movie because the movie cut things out of the book to clock in at a reasonable runtime. Instead, if you watch the movie first and then the book second, the book becomes the extended edition of the movie you loved! Never have I uttered the words, “Oh man, they cut that out of the book and now the movie sucks as a result!” If you never read the book first then you can’t be disappointed with what’s missing in the movie. If you read the book second, you’re doing so because you enjoyed the movie and you can expand on the world you now love with a book full of additional content. It might be a backwards way of thinking but it has served me well in making sure I enjoy my experience at the movies.

Way to Prep #5 - The Polar Express (2004)

The Polar Express is a modern animated holiday classic, telling the tale of a boy that gets onto a magical train on Christmas Eve and takes a ride to the North Pole. Adventures are had, beauty is seen and magic is made in this family favorite. Polar Express had decent reviews (55% positive) and opened to $23 million, but then chugged along to $163 million and three Oscar nominations. Orient Express is tracking towards a similar $25 million debut and has better reviews. Granted, Orient Express wasn’t made for families but maybe magic can carry this one through a long winter towards blockbuster status. Most of the cast could use a hit on their resume, and the holiday season is the time for surprise blockbusters. Orient Express is primed for such a breakout. If you think 65% positive reviews isn’t enough, wait for Justice League. When that is released, 65% positive might just seem good enough for a few Oscar nominations.