Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Review: Snowpiercer (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Go Ah-sung, Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, John Hurt

Having now seen it, I can't really imagine how Harvey Weinstein could think that there's 20 minutes to cut from Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer. It runs at a robust 126 minutes but this is a taunt, white-knuckle science fiction thriller from beginning to end. Though it came at the price of sacrificing a large-scale theatrical release for an extremely limited theatrical run with simultaneous VOD release (which in hindsight I think will start to look like The Weinstein Company cutting off its nose to spite its face, as in what seems like an unusually quiet summer movie season this could have been at least a modest hit), Boon was able to successfully fight to keep his film intact - and thank God for that. This is a terrific film of incredible ambition and skilled execution. If you're lucky enough to have an opportunity to see it in a theater, seize the chance, but seek it out wherever you can find it.

In 2031, 17 years after an experiment meant to stop global warming instead ushered in a new ice age, the only human survivors on earth are those who have been aboard the Snowpiercer, an enormous train powered by an eternal engine and traveling on a track that spans the entire globe (the result of which is that time no longer seems to be measured in days and weeks, but in landmarks which are passed on an annual basis). The elite live in luxury at the front of the train, while the rabble live in squalor at the back, surviving on "protein bars" that look like purple gelatin, stacked on top of each other in the living quarters, and without having had a glimpse of the outside world since boarding. There have been rebellions in the past, each violently quashed, and there is a new one on the horizon as deprivation brings things to the breaking point at the back of the train. The catalyst comes after two children are snatched from their parents by an agent from the front - measured and found to be the perfect size for some mysterious purpose - and the parents, on objecting, are met with brutality. One, Tanya (Octavia Spencer), is beaten, while the other, Andrew (Ewan Bremner) is punished by having his arm stuck out of the train long enough to freeze and then smashed with a sledgehammer. When the time comes, the rebellion proceeds and is led by Curtis (Chris Evans), who is advised by Gilliam (John Hurt), and assisted in no small part by his sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell). The rebels successfully fight their way towards the prison compartment, where they release Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho), the man who built the train's gates, and his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung), whom Curtis quickly realizes has some degree of clairvoyance.

After working their way a little further forward without incident, the rebels encounter a car full of masked men armed with axes and machetes. A battle ensues and though they suffer many casualties, the rebels are successful and able to capture Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), who has been charged by Wilford - the creator of the train and its de facto dictator - with maintaining the order of things by keeping the people at the back of the train submissive and in their proper "place." In exchange for her life, Mason agrees to lead Curtis and a small band of his people forward while Gilliam holds the fort at the car containing the train's water supply and where the rest of the rebels will rest and regain their strength for the fighting to come. As Curtis and his gang press forward, they encounter greater and greater luxuries enjoyed by the upper classes, and greater horrors which lead to their already small number being dwindled. As Wilford's agents are able to slip to the back of the train and begin to slaughter the rebels, Curtis and what remains of his group continue to press forward, determined to get control of the engine and force an end to the class division that has allowed those at the front to hoard resources while those at the back suffer.

Loosely based on the graphic novel "Le Transperceneige" by Jacques Lob, Snowpiercer is a film that nicely balances action set pieces with social/political concerns. The story is obviously allegorical and makes no bones about it's connection to the very real issue of income inequality, but Snowpiercer loses nothing through its lack of subtlety or by underlining the difference between the party line coming from the top, and the actual reality of the relationship between those at the front and those at the back of the train. The party line - explicitly expressed by Mason - is that there is a head (those at the front) and a foot (those at the back), and each end needs to know its place. Those at the head were those who were able to pay for their tickets before the apocalypse*, while those at the bottom are the ones who, through Wilford's generosity, were allowed on for free. Though they live in horrid conditions with no ability to improve those conditions, they ought to be grateful simply because they've been allowed to live. That's the official message and what it sidesteps is that, while those at the back need the train to protect them from the harsh conditions outside, those at the front need those at the back in order to live their lives of luxury. Without those at the back and at the lower levels between the front and the back, there's no one to provide services to those at the front (an early scene has agents of the front coming to the back to find someone who can play violin so that he or she can entertain those at the front, and presumably there are sanitation people, etc. who are keeping things pristine and livable at the front). Moreover, without the children at the back of the train, the people at the front would have to sacrifice their own children for the nefarious purpose which I won't reveal. Those who hoard the resources keep reiterating that those at the bottom should be grateful for the "favor" they've been done without acknowledging (or perhaps even recognizing) that their own lifestyle has only been made possible through the exploitation of those at the bottom.

As directed by Bong and filmed by cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo, Snowpiercer is a film that begins in darkness, with the back of the train characterized as a filthy pit of human despair, and, as the story moves forward through the train, gradually gets lighter through the presence of windows, and more colorful through the decor at the front and the clothing worn by its citizens. By the time the film gets to the "Sacred Engine," there seems to be nothing but light - cold, merciless light, but light nonetheless. The look of the film, and the feeling that it's able to engender through its look, are important to Snowpiercer's success, but so is the film's casting. Swinton excels in her admittedly showy role as a government official who only realizes once it's too late how fragile a shield her power really is, while Hurt brings maturity and gravitas to his role as the wise old survivor. Of the characters who make the long trek from the back to the front, Go unfortunately has little more to do that scream once in a while and be "magic," and Spencer and Bell, both fine actors, are relegated to playing figures that are more shadows than actual characters, but Song equips himself well as a character who has a plan of his own and is secretly gathering what he needs along the way so that he can put it in motion, and Evans excels are Curtis. Although he's always been a likable actor, he hasn't often been given such weighty material and he emerges here grizzled, battle-hardened, and haunted. It's a very good performance which helps drive the film forward and which helps to give it flashes of real humanity. Snowpiercer is a film which is not without flaws, but it's one that ought to be seen and deserves better than the bizarre treatment it has received from its North American distributor.

*Although it's not enough to ruin my enjoyment of the film, I do wonder about the benefit of selling tickets for the train. The world is about to end so currency is going to have no value, thus the people who are occupying the front of the train have brought nothing of value to it, as their money is now useless. If the train is going to be divided up by class, it seems logical that skilled laborers would be the ones at the top tier as they would be the ones whose presence would bring the most value to life on the train

No comments: