Sunday, June 29, 2014
Directed by Bong Joon-Ho
Films with inherent nihilism, like Snowpiercer, usually fight an uphill battle with American audiences. The film is made by famed South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho, whose Mother and The Host showcased his incredible talent with tension and stylistic violence. Snowpiercer is his first English language film, and while it's made with the kind of budgetary ambition of an American blockbuster, its sensibilities are much closer to that of Korean and other East Asian film markets. The violence is stark and unsanitized, and it's story arc has little interest in providing us with the hero that the movie seems to be begging for. It's not like there is some kind of subversion of the American hero so popular in the Summer Action Movie, Snowpiercer just doesn't seem to have much interest in that part of the American cinematic mythos. To be sure, the film is a grand achievement in varied cinematography and production design, and it's certainly a more refreshing vision of the dystopia that all movies seem to be obsessed with lately. But it's earnest spirit doesn't hold a whole lot of water outside of its blood soaked battle scenes which please the eye, but provide very little else in the way of stimulation.
Sometime in mid-2014 (Oh! The timeliness!) global warming was causing such a dangerous threat to the planet that the government decided to blast the aerial atmosphere with a chemical that halted warming to such a point that a second Ice Age occurred and all life on the planet ceased. A very, very select few managed to survive by boarding an enormous locomotive train that runs on a track that literally spans the globe and takes exactly one year to make a single rotation around the planet. The train and it's purpose were created by a man named Wilford, who's never actually seen but is spoken of with such enthusiastic vigor, his benevolence promoted to young children on a daily basis. To survivors, he is basically God, and the spoken face of the religion is a rigid, tone-deaf woman named Mason (Tilda Swinton, in a marvelously de-glammed performance, equipped with fake teeth and an unplaceable accent) who does her best to enforce the societal rules of the train. The main rule: The front of the train is reserved for the upper class, all amenities provided for and then some; while the tail of the train is populated by the vagrant lower class, left to fend for themselves for space and comfort while only being fed "protein bars" that look kind of like shit-flavored jell-o bricks. These social borders are not crossed, by any means, and most of the time violence is used to keep tail passengers where they belong.
After seventeen years of oppression, the occupants of the tail of the train are stirring with revolt. Curtis (Chris Evans), a scruff, pain-faced man, reluctantly takes a leadership role amongst the people as his mentor, Gilliam (John Hurt), gets older and finds trouble moving very quickly while missing both one arm and one leg. Other leaders within this rebellion are Edgar (Jamie Bell), a fresh-faced youngster ready to make the push toward the swankier front of the train. There's also Tanya (Octavia Spencer), a feisty mother ready to make life better for her young son, Timmy. To help them in their move up the train, they find Namgoong (Song Kang-Ho), the former security designer of the train. Curtis and crew bribe Namgoong and his teenage daughter, Yona (Ko Ah-Sung), with a popular drug named Kronol, which induces hallucinations when sniffed. In return, Namgoong helps them open each gate as they go through each car, the extravagance becoming grander with each one they enter. They're even able to reach the magnanimous Wilford, himself (who's shown to be played by a veteran actor whom I won't reveal here). The journey is gruesome and bloody, as the forces within the train fight back against the revolt with every effort they can muster. Epic battle sequences are staged within the limited spaces of the train cars, and both sides suffer great casualties. All the time, Bong does not let you forget: the sociological metaphor is real.
Snowpiercer wears its politics on its sleeve. It populist cast of characters combined with its proletariat plot arc isn't very subtle. Lack of subtly in and of itself is not a flaw, and I don't really think Bong cares about how transparent Snowpiercer's allegory may be. But if you choose to watch it without the thesis in mind, the characters become hollow creations. The film is headed by Chris Evans who's doing very good work here, but it's within a character that doesn't really spark interest; Evans was able to find a more varied collection of emotions as the famously square Captain America in the Avengers film. The same can be said for the entire cast: the characters are shabbily chiseled cliches that are only saved by solid actors - Spencer, Swinton, Song, etc. - who are able to find glimmers of humanity within the contrivances of the script. Snowpiercer's gritty screenplay, written by Bong with Kelly Masterson, and its angry-as-fuck declarations against a world without moral justice is the least interesting aspect of this film. Cynicism is all the rage these days, but Snowpiercer's cynicism is showcased with a sincerity that makes it hard to really process. It's hard to look down on the cold, violent world they're declaiming when the film itself seems to be having so much fun with the extreme violence that it's displaying.
As a piece of filmmaking, however, Snowpiercer is quite impressive. Bong and cinematographer Hong Kyung-Pyo craft such wonderful and brutal action sequences, which are made more extraordinary by the strenuous limits placed on them by their setting. Consider the famed "Hallway Scene" from Oldboy except for an entire film. The film's use of color - they become more flush and vibrant as Curtis fights his way toward the front of the train - is overwhelming; too often, movies about dystopia can become obsessed with the muted colors that are similar to the early scenes in this film, but Snowpiercer shows that there are different ways that you can do it. Nobody has ever claimed that Bong was anything less than an excellent filmmaker, even if the grandeur of Snowpiercer threatened his more humble beginnings. The film is almost entirely in English but the hallmarks of contemporary Western filmmaking is nowhere to be found. Snowpiercer's weakest moments come when it tries to translate its Eastern nihilism into Western heroism. Unfortunately, the movie can't have it both ways. This is a movie that has something to say, which I guess does make it special if we're grading it on the sliding scale of vapid action movies. But it doesn't go about saying it in a very organized way and being a smarter movie than the latest Transformers film doesn't exactly grant much praise from me these days.
Of course, it's almost a miracle that we were able to see the Snowpiercer that was released here. The Weinstein Company, who owned the distribution rights for the film, famously demanded that Bong cut twenty minutes from the film because of fear that its black tone and unusual visual flair wouldn't play well with audiences. Company head, Harvey Weinstein, long known as a strong-arming bully, trampling the rights of artists to feed his enormous ego, was forced to relent on his demand to re-cut the film, but only after the bad publicity in Hollywood and the big box office returns in foreign markets. Bong and Snowpiercer have one of the rare victories over the vulgarian Weinstein, but having seen the film for myself, I can understand the trepidation from the Weinstein Company. The level of coddling that American audiences are used to just isn't available here - I'm not sure that Bong would even be capable of that sort of thing. I was not as big of a fan of this movie as I wanted it to be, but I recognize that it represents a departure from most Summer action movies and that slight level of thoughtfulness can really make a difference. I have a bias against violence, but films that use it in interesting ways can help me overcome it. The violence is one of Snowpiercer's best attributes. It's all the other foundational stuff that's lagging behind.