Movie Review: Snowpiercer (2014)

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Seen: At the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge.

“Human beings are fucked,” I think to myself, not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, as the opening exposition of Bong Joon-ho’s realistically cynical (but otherwise ridiculously unrealistic) futuristic thriller, Snowpiercer, plays over the speakers. Immediately, we know that an experimental substance was launched into the atmosphere in 2014 with the hope that it would balance the earth’s climate. Instead, it launched a world-wide ice age that killed almost everything living. The last bastion of humanity is found on a train, a self-sustaining technological marvel built to withstand extreme temperatures as it chugs along its year-long circuit. The train is organized according to a strict class hierarchy, with wealthy first-class passengers enjoying all the luxuries of the old world in the first several cars and the poor passengers stuck at the back, forced to give up their skills, their labor, and their children as the front of the train demands them. Many revolts have been attempted over the 18 years they’ve been stuck on the train, but we witness the one led by Curtis (Chris Evans), a rebellion that’s set on making it all the way to the first car, where the miracle engine resides. Control the engine, control the train.

Bong Joon-ho has made a name for himself in Korean cinema with his darkly comic, offbeat thrillers and dramas that blend intense situations with complex characters. His debut English-language feature, Snowpiercer is probably his most ambitious, and easily his most over-the-top. It’s a ridiculous blend of sick comedy and shocking drama, Bioshock-futurism and gory action set-pieces, class warfare and environmentalism, new religion and victorious nihilism. Most of the narrative doesn’t make any sense, but the story, action, and characters are all so enjoyable that it really doesn’t matter. It’s easy to just go with it. Bong’s visual flair lends a certain legitimacy to this strange, unreal future-train, while the real-life relevancy of the central class struggle is keenly felt. To be fair, a class-related rebellion led by a muscular young white dude isn’t very accurate, but Curtis is mostly used as a blank slate for the more interesting characters to influence and play off of, plus I’m assuming making him the protagonist helped sell the idea of this off-kilter movie by a not-famous director.

The script toys with how a completely contained, restricted group of people might forge a new society, combining shitty elements of the old one while thinking of new, shittier elements to incorporate. The establishment of a train-specific religion is fascinating, with its bizarre hand motions and hymns glorifying the train’s creator, Wilford (Ed Harris), because strange as it is it’s totally believable. Of course those in power would use religion to control their underlings, and we see it being passed on to children, to those who don’t remember anything before this train, so we understand that the next generation will take for granted that this is how things are, this is the system and this is their god, this engine that sustains them. The incorporation of religion is made as hilarious as it is unsettling in a brilliant scene set in the train’s school room, with Alison Pill fucking glowing in her brief role.

Beautifully shot and ably paced, the film makes an impact as much in its ludicrous plotting as it does in its pitch-perfect casting. Tilda Swinton shines, as ever, as the toothy spokesperson for Wilford, a slightly gender-ambiguous mouthpiece whose exaggerated features and Southern accent make for a funny, bizarre, and ruthless villain. Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, and Emma Levie effectively round out the supporting cast, and Chris Evans does his gruff leading-man thing well enough, catching the audience off-guard with a weird and terrible monologue at the end that sums up a lot about the character and his struggle. The real stars are of course father-and-daughter drug addicts Namgoong Minsoo and Yona, played by Bong Joon-ho favorites Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung. Enlisted by Curtis because of their knowledge of the train’s security, they are along for the ride but not supportive of the rebellion. They look out for one another only, and Namgoong has a radically different idea for changing the status quo. They offer a more nuanced, complicated set of motivations and viewpoints in comparison to the fairly black-and-white positioning of the back of the train and the front. Song Kang-ho has become been one of my favorite actors, and he does not disappoint here, simultaneously hilarious and grizzly and tragic. I was glad they also found a way for him to speak in his native Korean, since that made his performance more natural.

I know that Snowpiercer is at times almost unforgivably ridiculous (like shots exchanged through the windows of a moving train when it went around a bend, what?), but it manages to strike an almost-perfect balance between over-the-top plot developments, compelling characters, apocalyptic pulp, wondrous technology, angsty melodrama, unexpected humor, and gripping action. I see its flaws but they don’t take away from my supreme enjoyment of the film overall. Also that brutal ending really did it for me.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Surprisingly, nothing immediately springs to mind even though I’m sure I’ve seen enough films that would make good double features with this. My first instinct is to say another action-y Song Kang-ho movie? Can’t go wrong with The Host or The Good, The Bad, The Weird.

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