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Entries in Snowpiercer [2014] (1)


Snowpiercer (2014)

Occupy Wonka

People love Snowpiercer. Writer/director Bong Joon-ho's English-language debut is not only a critical darling, it also boasts the dubious honor of being Korea's highest-grossing film.1 The "Ice Age train" movie has garnered acclaim for its action, style, and hard-hitting political allegory, as well as for actress Tilda Swinton's garish physical transformation in playing one of its villains. If any of this hype drives you to the local art-house theatre, I suggest checking all that baggage before climbing aboard.

The movie is gorgeous, but sitting through its two-hour-plus run-time is a Herculean feat of mental gymnastics for anyone with a half-engaged brain. One might expect this from the latest Transformers movie, but Snowpiercer is supposed to be the "smart" action movie, the one we all go to for deeper truths about our planet's rigged caste system and environmental malfeasance. Unfortunately, Bong and co-writer Kelly Masterson (working from the graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette) must be taken to task for committing Bay's precise sins: Snowpiercer is a roiling cauldron of clichés, platitudes, and convoluted, incomplete plot points. They go a step further by infusing their story with cartoonish left-wing allegories so aggressive that each ticket should come with complimentary riot gear.

The film's premise is quite interesting: in the near future, scientists launch chemical rockets into the atmosphere to reduce global warming. They succeed--in bringing about a new ice age. Luckily for a few hundred survivors, a mad genius named Wilford (Ed Harris) had recently completed a perpetual-motion global rail system, featuring a really fast, impenetrable train. Instantly, humanity's last hope was divided into haves, have-a-bits, and have-nots, and relegated to the front, middle, and tail of the train, respectively.

Nearly eighteen years on, Wilton's prim and proper right-hand man, Mason (Swinton), oversees a squad of armed and armored thugs who dole out gelatinous protein squares to the impoverished rear-car folks at meal time. Wilton's goons also select people with special talents to entertain the front-car elite (they're never seen again).

The tail's residents come straight from the Heroe's Journey Wing of central casting. We have Curtis (Chris Evans), who talks endlessly about not being fit for leadership--while continuously leading everyone else in revolution. Gilliam (John Hurt) is the wise, crippled Obi-Wan to Curtis's Luke. Scrappy teen Edgar (Jamie Bell) is always looking for a fight, but mostly loves being the comic relief. And Octavia Spencer is Tanya the black lady. I know that's horribly offensive, but Spencer is given absolutely nothing to do in this movie but play an ignorant, violent follower whose main character trait is crying over her kidnapped son. It's a role that literally anyone might inhabit, and is far beneath a gifted, Academy Award-winning performer. In fact, the filmmakers grant all their characters only descriptive-level depth until the very end--during a pair of out-of-the-blue, pre-climax monologues (one of which really should have been front-loaded).

As you'd expect, Snowpiercer concerns the tail residents fighting their way to the front and taking control of the train. It's unclear what they'll do with it, exactly. They can't stop because the outside temperatures impose frostbite within seven minutes. They can't incarcerate everyone on-board--nor are there enough bullets (allegedly) or gumption to kill the rich and their minions. But as you'll see, forward thinking is not foremost on this movie's mind.

Snowpiercer works better as a allegory than as a movie--and it's allegory is pretty shoddy, too. This is one of those rare films that had me asking five questions for every minute it was on screen. Spoilerific questions, such as:

1. How long is this train? We don't get a glimpse of the train until much further along in the movie than is required to give the audience some sense of the stakes. Given the characters' schemes and other developments, it's easy to imagine a relatively small car count--especially since the train must travel at high speeds through winding mountains and over rickety bridges. But later on, we see that this metal behemoth, which contains a full aquarium, classroom, water-processing plant, and multi-level night club is actually dozens of cars long, houses several hundred people, and is propelled by a single engine.

2. Where does everyone sleep? In the tail section, passengers squeeze into bunk beds in the wall. But, making their way through the cars' video-game-like levels, they encounter all sorts of people who seem to have spent the apocalypse hanging out in sardine cans, waiting for a scrap. From the night club kids, to the grade-schoolers, to Wilton's axe-and-gun-wielding ninja SEALS,2 there's no sense that anyone has a function or a life outside the dictates of their costumes.

3. How did people who've been starved and imprisoned on a train car for nearly two decades become expert fighters? Seriously, there's no evidence that the tail-end passengers actually do anything on the train (such as tend coal); they look consistently sweaty, dirty, and tired (which makes sense), but when it comes time to revolt, there are suddenly high kicks, martial arts, and professional weapons-wielding tactics at play--all led by Evans, whose character might as well have been named "Knit Cap(tain) America".3

4. Wait, Wilford has never walked the full length of his own train? Bullshit. A hardcore industrialist, and inventor since childhood, would inspect every inch of his masterpiece--out of sheer ego, if nothing else.

5. Is it the makeup? As I said, Swinton has garnered a lot of attention for herself and for the movie.4 But aside from her over-pronounced Wallace & Gromit voice and the fact that she's allegedly playing a man (who just looks like a really odd woman), her appearance and performance are identical to that of Johnny Depp in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The Wonka references don't stop there, I'm afraid--nor do the riffs on the trademark, out-there style of Terry Gilliam and others. From specific plot details to the giant "W's" adorning the train, and a faux-quirky homage to The Wall mid-movie, I found only eager-to-be-outrageous imitation in Bong's inspirations.

I could probably circle the planet and still have things to say about this irritating little movie. But it's about time to move on.

In the "plus" column, Snowpiercer looks great, and can be appreciated purely from a production-design and costuming standpoint. It even has some nice camera flourishes, with Bong and cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong delivering sweet angles and movement during the quieter scenes. Unfortunately, any action movie of this type must now live up to the standards of the Raid era, and Bong's scenes play like Adam West's Batman by comparison.

One last note about the movie's politics: I'm left to wonder if the filmmakers have ever met any virtuous rich people, or non-virtuous poor people--or members of the middle class who aren't clueless, unquestioning thugs. That's all we're given here, and, for me, an allegory's effectiveness is only as strong as its relatability to the human condition. Towards the end, we learn that two of the main characters had bizarre shades of gray once upon a time, but neither of these revelations are believable (one is plain nonsensical). Ultimately, Snowpiercer is a bumper sticker stuck to a sulking teenager's car--not the hard-driving, complex stuff of bona fide, socially conscious science fiction.

1I'm not an expert on international ticket sales, but $80 million dollars in 11 months would get the exact opposite kind of press if ascribed to an American release.

2Bizarrely, they wear black stockings on their faces, with only a mouth hole cut out. When it's time to fight in the dark, they put on night-vision goggles--over their fabric-covered eyes.

3He even has selective magical force field abilities, and the power to project detoxification onto other people--as evidenced by the final scene in which a drug addict and small child (whom he helped shield from a blast that also has a selective radius of destruction) stands up and walks straight out of the train, onto the ice. No hobbling, no disorientation, and no third-, second-, or even first-degree burns on either person. The addict (stoned to the point of incapacitation mere moments earlier) also appears clear-headed, hopeful, and ready to be a parent. Oh, and she's a periodic psychic, to boot. God bless Knit Cap(tain) America.

4If there were a reason to watch Snowpiercer, Swinton would be it.