Joon-ho Bong's exemplary 'Snowpiercer' is a much-needed revitalization of a familiar blockbuster template
Snowpiercer The Weinstein Company
Director: Joon-ho Bong
Screenplay: Joon-ho Bong and Kelly Masterson, based on the novel Le Transperceneige, created by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette
Starring: Chris Evans, Kang-ho Song, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, Ah-sung Ko, Vlad Ivanov, Ewen Bremner, Alison Pill and Ed Harris
Rated R / 2 hours, 6 minutes
July 2, 2014 (limited); July 11, 2014 (VOD)
(out of four)
The dystopian nightmare is such a ubiquitous presence in contemporary American cinema, and has become so shopworn as a result, that it should come as little surprise that it takes an outsider's view to revitalize the whole subgenre. And that is exactly the case with Snowpiercer - from South Korean auteur Joon-ho Bong and French graphic novelists Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette - which is something of a crude and subversive take on the genre, an American dystopia reflected against itself.
There are so many (deliberately) superficial similarities to our standard blockbuster template that part of the fascination of watching Snowpiercer is in seeing how it twists or upends them. We are seeing our own movies through a wholly different set of eyes (even though, of course, Bong's concerns and areas of interest ultimately go a lot deeper than that); it's instantly recognizable and distinctly foreign at the same time. The "near future" in which modern concerns have been realized and have left civilization in ruins. The ragged but plucky underclass browbeaten by an odious plutocracy. The reluctant leader, fighting for the oppressed. The burgeoning revolution against the wealthy and powerful.
With all those familiar ingredients in play, it's no wonder the Weinsteins bought the U.S. rights in the first place - and it's no wonder they then immediately tried to cut 20 minutes from the film, re-focus it on the action elements, and dumb it down with extraneous voiceover narration. (Allegedly.)
But after a very public controversy over which version would be released, Bong's cut prevails (albeit without a wide release and with very little advertising), and with it a biting satirical expression of the ideas we've been wrestling with in our science-fiction movies for years.
It's only fitting that our guide, and the film's hero, is Captain America himself, with Chris Evans dirtying himself up as Curtis Everett, a passenger in the poverty-stricken tail section of an elaborately designed train traversing the globe and carrying all of the planet's remaining survivors. The titular Snowpiercer was humanity's saving grace after humanity very nearly managed to wipe itself out. That near-wipeout began as a noble idea, though - a scientific breakthrough designed to counteract global warming, but which, once implemented, instead wound up creating a global ice age and claiming almost all of civilization in the process.
The train, a brainchild of a tycoon named Wilford, is all that's left of society, but society itself has not changed. The wealthy still rule - primarily the unseen (until the end) Wilford, who is deified along with the all-powerful Engine that keeps the train running, and thus preserves life as we know it - and the poor are still theirs to be exploited.
Curtis has spent exactly half his life on the train - and all of it in the back, doomed to permanent squalor. He and the rest of the poor underclass - cramped together in their bunks, all tattered clothes and sweat and dirt - only get hints of what life is like up closer to the front, miles away. Their diet consists of brown, gelatinous "protein bars," while they're well aware of the rumors that the front of the train still has steak and seafood. From time to time, they get a visit from someone from the front - usually it's Mason (Tilda Swinton, deliberately and gloriously chewing the scenery with her wretched false teeth), one of Wilford's deputies and a grotesque caricature who unwittingly underscores the absurdity of the train's higher classes. She shows up to enforce order. To reiterate that everyone is in their proper, and necessary, place. "A hat must go on the head, a shoe must go on the foot."
As a protection against rebellion, the poor are punished harshly for even relatively minor transgressions. In the cruellest manor possible, no less - with various body parts removed by being frozen into uselessness through a small window to the outside, and then promptly lopped off. We look around the tail section and see various people with appendages missing, including one with quite a few missing - Gilliam (John Hurt), a mentor for Curtis and co-conspirator in a long-brewing rebellion. The two appear to have a noble advocate up front, as they've been getting secret messages (passed through the protein bars) to help set up their revolution for the last few months. Finally, it seems to be time, and Curtis - despite insisting otherwise - is the leader who will take the fight to the oppressors and lead those in the tail section to the promised land.
That's the plan, anyway - and after a lengthy table-setting first act, it finally goes into motion, with the help of Curtis' loyal sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell); Tanya (Octavia Spencer), whose young son was taken by the wealthy without explanation; Namgoong Minsu (the great Kang-ho Song), a drug addict who designed the locks and doors of the train and is thus the key to the journey from car to car; and his similarly addicted daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko, nearly all grown up eight years after her great turn in Bong's The Host).
Bong makes a crucial structural decision, which is to withhold the details of the rest of this society until they're ultimately revealed to Curtis and his cohorts. Once the plan goes into action, we see the true nature of the train open up before our eyes. One car is a massive freshwater fish tank. Another is a sauna, then a classroom, then a salon, then a nightclub.
Appropriately, there is no middle class to speak of on the so-called "Rattling Ark." The shift from the lower-class areas to the upper-class ones is severe. That the train is a microcosm of an extreme capitalist society is not just a function of the film's allegory, but a deliberate piece of the design by those in power - a central component of a self-reinforcing power structure. The scariest part is how the explanation for this system, as explained by (of course) its most prominent beneficiary, is fundamentally rational (if deceitfully argued) in its vile amorality.
For a while the film plays like a series of vignettes as we go through each section, each taking on a dramatically different tone - from caustic satire in the classroom sequence (as an unforgettable Alison Pill happily and exuberantly leads the children in a ceremonial recital of humanity's terrible circumstances) to the sauna's ominous dread, as our heroes are targeted and picked off by a stone-faced, terrifying assassin (Vlad Ivanov*) in an expensive suit.
* What a surprising treat Ivanov's performance is, too. Until now, I've known him for his brilliantly verbose and sardonic performances in the likes of 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days and Police, Adjective. But here, he gives essentially the exact opposite performance. He never speaks - it's all cold, silent menace wrapped inside a large and imposing physical specimen.
Contrary to TWC's apparent belief that 20 minutes could be cut from this thing, I actually would have liked to see more of each of the train cars as we moved along the proverbial ladder of this society. They're all so memorably designed - and brought to life in such vivid and different ways by Bong and cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong - that I would have loved to stay in each spot for even longer.
Then again, Bong - in his English-language debut, strengthening an already great résumé that includes the masterpiece Memories of Murder, among others - shows an impressive discipline, which means he smartly leaves us wanting more, whether it's with a certain setting or a particular character. Pill, for example, only has one scene - but what a scene. Song, one of my favorite working actors, is a side character who doesn't show up until 40 minutes or so into the film, but immediately becomes its strongest presence, while Ko is arguably its most poignant (and most hopeful). Evans, meanwhile, gives his most multi-faceted performance, pivoting away from his heroic alpha-male persona to uncover new depths as a man haunted by the moral degradation he's seen and experienced.
Snowpiercer suffers from a certain repetitiveness in its writing - how many times do we need to hear that everyone needs to be "in their place"? - and there are moments where it's too exposition-happy for its own good. The final act, in particular, is guilty of this; like last year's The World's End, this is another first-rate movie that doesn't always know how (or when) to explain itself. Relying on a Monologuing Villain doesn't entirely cut it - at least not when contrasted against the film's more visually and intellectually daring setpieces.
Still, that does not take away from Snowpiercer's power as a whole; this is a smart and expertly made film, functioning as well as a piece of devilishly clever agitprop as it does as an action thriller. More than that, though, it is a quintessentially American blockbuster - but one that puts the state of American blockbusters to shame.