'Snowpiercer' Is A Bizarre, Dark Masterpiece Of A Sci-Fi Action Film
It's easy to understand where Harvey Weinstein was coming from now. After a second viewing of Bong Joon-ho's much delayed (at least for American audiences) Snowpiercer, it became clear why he wanted alter the film before unleashing it on our shores. It's not that it needs to "be understood by audiences in Iowa... and Oklahoma" as was so condescendingly explained by a Weinstein Company underling. No, Snowpiercer isn't complicated or over the heads of most audience members. Instead, it's a bizarre, sprawling, and dark film that has no peer amongst the usual summer fare at the theater. No wonder Weinstein wanted to rein it in. A deal was made, and Bong's original uncut vision will hit theaters this Friday, albeit without a wide release.
Snowpiercer, based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, is set in a near future where humanity's attempt to reverse global warming goes horribly awry and a new Ice Age is cast upon the planet. What's left of the human population is on board a "rattling ark" that circles the globe every year, and the enclosed ecosystem of the train mimics the social stratification of society and further compartmentalizes it into the individual cars. The unwashed masses inhabit the back of the train, with their cramped accommodations more closely resembling the cluttered futuristic industrial wastes of Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys or Jean-Pierre Jeunet's City Of Lost Children than the Amtrak Surfliner. The elites that run the train show up only to make headcounts, feed them squishy brown "protein blocks," and quell any unrest. Sometimes Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), a hilarious send up of Margaret Thatcher, shows up to bark directives from Wildford, a figure so enigmatic we're unsure whether he's actually a man, God, the "Sacred Engine" or some combination of the three.
Led by the grizzled and determined Curtis (Chris Evans, trading in his Captain America getup for a beanie and dingy coat) under the tutelage of an elder amputee sage (John Hurt) not-coincidentally named Gilliam, the "tail-sectioners" embark on a rebellion to overtake the front of the train in its 18th year of circling the frozen globe. Among his outmanned crew includes Curtis's impulsive cohort Edgar (Jamie Bell) and mother-to-the-rescue Tanya (Octavia Spencer). They first rescue and recruit security expert Namgoong Minsu (Bong veteran Song Kang-ho) to open each successive gate. Nam, as he is called, is a revelation on the screen. Granted it's in the work of a Korean director, but it's refreshing to see an Asian actor portray the last badass left in society. Nam is an irreverent presence in Snowpiercer, taking no shit from Curtis and being so cool that he smokes one of the last two cigarettes on earth. No surprise that when the film wraps up, he's the only person who has any idea what the fuck is going on.
Each car of the train they unlock with Nam's skills and conquer in bloody battles against Wilford's private army reveals a miniature world more grotesque in its lavishness and wealth than the decrepit rear. The heroes leapfrog from the assembly line where their protein blocks are made (you don't want to know out of what), to a sushi bar where the frozen waste of civilization serves as the view outside of the window, to, most memorably, an obscenely colorful classroom where an Uzi-packing teacher (Alison Pill) sings cheery yet morbid propaganda songs to children. These extreme shifts in tone have been decried by Bong's critics for his whole career as a sign of sloppiness, but here they show playfulness and a spontaneity that other films today lack.
Bong's previous Korean films exhibited the talents of a craftsman whose greatest strength was his willingness to play with genre conventions. Works as varied as Memories Of Murder (police procedural), The Host (monster movie), and Mother (noir-ish mystery) prove him to be a premiere mashup artist and make him hard to pin down. When the creature born of military waste in The Host kidnaps Song Kang-ho's daughter (Go Ah-sung, who appears as his daughter again in Snowpiercer), Bong uses the monster movie romp as a frame for a poignant story of a family coming together through crisis.
Although Snowpiercer mires itself in blunt politics as a foundation for its conceit, it doesn't let the weight of these concepts hold it down. Instead of muddling itself into ideology, it uses these politics as touchstones in the service of economical storytelling to power what, at its heart, is one hell of a sci-fi action film. Class division, the military-industrial complex, environmental panic, and (briefly) chemtrails are all familiar references used as shorthand to push the narrative along. Not a single shot, moment, character, or revelation is wasted in Snowpiercer. The action is filmed and edited legibly, uniformly shot in one direction because the goal is clear: get to the front of the train. Everything is precisely calculated and constructed for the greatest efficiency, much like the eternal engine that has kept the train running for 18 years and counting.
This isn't to say Bong doesn't buy in to his Rise of the Proletariat narrative. In fact, Bong may be so overly committed to it that Snowpiercer screams it like a brash and audacious piece of pop art. The climactic crossing of a treacherous, ice-covered bridge that serves as the marking of another year onboard is bookended with bloody hand-to-hand combat between the haves and the have-nots. We witness what is left of humanity hacking itself to pieces as the train teeters over this treacherous crossing—one bad crash away from the laws of physics finishing the job. Now that's poetry in motion.
Snowpiercer opens Friday. In Los Angeles it will play at CGV Cinemas (Koreatown) and at the Sundance Sunset Cinema (West Hollywood). Click here for theater listings around the country.