Link those cars together and, wow, what a helter-skelter train!
Bong Joon-ho, the South Korean filmmaker responsible for the hilarious and suspenseful monster-movie classic called The Host, has unleashed another high-concept adventure that careens between sci-fi, comedy, adventure, action, hero’s journey, and political commentary, so that we hardly know how to feel from one moment to the next.
Chris “Captain America” Evans plays the reluctant leader of an oppressed population who have been imprisoned in one of the hindmost cars of a high-speed train — a train that contains the last survivors on a frozen earth. Humankind apparently doomed the world by trying to reverse the effects of global warming — they reversed it so dramatically, they triggered a global deep-freeze. Survivors didn’t have time to built a bunch of Imperial AT-ATs; all they had was a bullet train that has carried them in insulated “safety” for 17 years on an endless loop around the world. The rich live in the first-class cars, the middle-class lives in the middle, and you cannot imagine the conditions in the caboose. (You don’t want to know what they eat. You really, really don’t.)
The opening sequences establish just how much the poor are suffering, just how stuck they seem to be. The train’s conductor (Ed Harris, playing yet another futuristic overlord with a god complex) has rigged his train to prevent anyone making their way up the chain to the Engine, where he makes his moral compromises — inhumane decisions to keep humanity alive.
Watch out for the Engine’s chief enforcer, a schoolmarm from hell played with outrageous enthusiasm by Tilda Swinton — of course. She’s prone to making speeches that aim to crush any rebel spirits… speeches like this one:
Would you wear a shoe on your head?
Of course you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head. A shoe doesn’t belong on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat belongs on your head.
I am a hat. You are a shoe.
I belong on the head. You belong on the foot.
Yes? So it is. … When the foot seeks the place of the head, the sacred line is crossed. Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe.
Sound funny? It is funny.
But Bong isn’t here to get laughs. His humor is his tactic for keeping us in the tension between horror and hope. We laugh at the absurdity of the situation, and then we feel the sting of seeing something familiar in the proceedings.
If it sounds political, it is — but not in a way that’s likely to divide audiences. Keep in mind, this is a South Korean storyteller telling a story of oppression. God willing, most moviegoers will empathize — and some will even sympathize. Most of us can get behind the idea that rich oppressors are unlikely to seek equality and justice. Most of us will feel horror at the sight of shoot-to-kill stormtroopers seeking to quell protests with deadly violence. Most believe that it’s inhumane to force human beings to live in poverty and filth so that others can live it up in first class.
When the caboose people strive to make their voices heard in the engine, they’ll have to fight in total darkness against axe-wielding guards who have night vision goggles — one of the year’s most horrifying sequences. We’re left gasping for breath in the bloody claustrophobia, thanking God that this is just science fiction, that such things don’t remotely resemble what’s happening in the real world.
A lively bunch of familiar faces in the supporting cast would remind us that this is only a movie… if they weren’t so totally committed: Octavia Spencer (The Help) is a mother whose son has been dragged off into slavery. Jamie Bell (Billy Elliott) is a young rebel urging the rebel-captain-elect to press on. The Host’s Song Kang-ho is a secretive engineer whose skills in breaking through the barriers from one train car to the next are the rebellion’s only hope. And the ubiquitous John Hurt plays the character who makes it undeniable that the film is a tribute to the dystopian visions of Terry Gilliam — he plays a sort of prophet and spiritual leader for the rebellion, an old man named Gilliam.
While Snowpiercer hasn’t become the big-screen hit that many fans of international cinema hoped it would, it has enough imagination, action, humor, and star power to probably win it a sort of cult-classic status that The Host enjoys. Personally, I prefer The Host, but both films deserve a larger audience. Snowpiercer is an enthralling (not to mention disorienting) experience, full of memorable sights, sounds, and scares. With its wildly and delightfully erratic changes in style and tone, it dazzles my imagination…
…but, I’m sorry to say, it also disrupts my suspension of disbelief. Bong cranks the film up to a ferocious momentum that reminds me of Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, but I remain on the outside, observing the film instead of really experiencing it. Usually, that’s a character problem — the human beings in the film aren’t coming to life in a way that makes me believe they had lives before the film began. Few of these characters ever expand beyond the one characteristic or detail that makes them necessary to keep the wheels of the plot turning. Children of Men moved through a similarly bizarre, grim, and violent dystopia — but that film also made me believe. I think that happened in part because of the persuasive and passionate presence of Clive Owen, whose gravitas carried me through. This film is crowded with characters who aren’t given enough opportunity to develop much in the midst of the grim, violent melee.
But this rattling, rumbling bullet train is an effective — if simplistic — metaphor. If enough people see the movie, I won’t be surprised if we see its influence on conversations about social justice in the coming years. We may even see it affect the vocabulary of protests… maybe even violent protests.
In which car of this train do you find yourself? And what can we do about the plight of the people in the tail section? When will we have a change of heart and mind toward those who, for the sake of running the world’s engines, are exploited? (Fortunately, by the time the credits roll, the film has raised serious questions about the usefulness of violent protest.)
I don’t know if I’ll ever be certain of what Bong is saying, or asking, through all of this. Is it cynical? I think so. Is it hopeful? I think so. I’m tempted to say that the casting of Chris Evans gives the whole thing a bitter twist, because I can’t think of a less-inspiring leading man in big-budget action today. They may as well have cast Jack from Lost. And the film’s fantastic, wickedly enigmatic final shot reminds us that humanity isn’t necessarily the biggest threat to human survival.
I love how Bong’s spectacular new sci-fi-apocalypse admits that it is deeply rooted in the dark visions of Terry Gilliam, and how its ending can be read as brightly or as darkly as the viewer chooses to read it… making alternate endings and contradictory cuts of the film unnecessary. (I guarantee you: Steven Colbert will hate the ending.)
Still, for all of its drawbacks, the hyperkinetic, chaotic energy of Snowpiercer is well worth a look, especially for how easy it is to imagine that Terry Gilliam is sitting beside you weeping tears of joy. How tragic to think that even a genius like Gilliam, in order to bring brilliant, singular visions like Brazil, The Fisher King, and 12 Monkeys to the screen, had to compromise and play ball with the Engine — a fact that the film begrudgingly admits.
Looking Closer at Snowpiercer:
Steven Greydanus at ReelFaith:
Josh Larsen at Larsen on Film:
I’m not sure where the line is between a good gonzo movie and a creative mess, but I know that Snowpiercer is on the right side of it.
Mike D’Angelo at Letterboxd:
Half visionary madness, half brain-dead blockbuster—a truly fascinating combination. It’s stupid and blunt in more or less the same ways that, say, Elysium was…. [T]he deliberately clashing sensibilities are vintage Bong, and the resulting whiplash keeps you alert and amused even when the film’s class-war allegory gets heavy-handed.
David Ehrlich at Badass Digest:
Less of a broad critique on capitalism than it is an amusingly sad and sobering illustration of how rigid power structures are sustained by inertia rather than progress, Snowpiercer is a blockbuster testament to how impossible it is to innovate if we’re all moving on rails. … Snowpiercer is like watching a typical Hollywood action movie reflected against a funhouse mirror. It looks and sounds similar to the thoughtless garbage churned out by our studio system (noticeably cheaper, though), but it’s also dark, overtly political and profoundly weird.
[Does this review seem familiar? An abridged version was first published on Letterboxd. Folks who follow me on Letterboxd often see my first-impression notes and reviews before they’re posted here.]