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By ERIC HARRIS
South Korean filmmakers have been producing some great, memorable films for a long time now, but only recently has Hollywood invited them to create English-language debuts. Unfortunately, the track record of first releases has been disappointing. Kim Jee-woon (“I Saw the Devil”) made “The Last Stand,” a goofy – in a good way – but underwhelming Schwarzenegger comeback film. Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy”) made “Stoker,” which was certainly a unique and interesting film, but it was pretty much abandoned by the studio. Now, and this is the most unfortunate of the three, Bong Joon-ho (“The Host”) has made “Snowpiercer,” an ambitious post-apocalyptic film that is equal parts entertaining and thought-provoking.
What’s unfor-tunate about this is that it spent months in limbo as The Weinstein Co. considered editing it so Americans could “understand” it – thankfully, the final release is the director’s version – and, despite the film making over $80 million overseas, the widest release the film had in America was around 350 theaters a few weeks ago. In other words, this film wasn’t given a chance to become traditionally successful in America because it was assumed mass audiences wouldn’t get it, like it, etc. Here’s where the good news comes in, however. Rather than expand to theaters nationwide, the film was released on demand – for roughly the same price as a theater ticket. While I would much rather have seen this on the big screen, I was still very appreciative to get a chance to watch it at all. More importantly, for those of you who don’t venture to the theater very often, you have a chance to check out a unique sci-fi film in your living room.
Now for the actual review of “Snowpiercer.”
Post-apocalyptic movies are almost too common these days, so a film in the genre needs to set itself apart. “Snowpiercer” easily does that as it’s about the last of humanity on a frozen Earth surviving on a train – the titular Snowpiercer – that never stops. Because of this premise – based on a French graphic novel – some people might be turned away. Obviously some suspension of disbelief is required, as it is for nearly all movies, I might add. The logistics of how it all works could easily distract the viewer from the film, but I was impressed with the world Bong Joon-ho created. But if the message boards at IMDb.com are any indicator, some people can’t get past nitpicking the premise. My advice is to just go with it.
The reason that the film takes place on a train is to allow for an easy metaphor for humanity. Even with the world essentially dead, there are still social classes on the train: poor in the back, rich in the front. But the film is more than just a “rich people are evil” metaphor. We’ve seen that scenario played out in film and reality enough anyway. “Snowpiercer” made me think more about humanity in general; about how some of us go about our daily grind and try not to think about the less fortunate or decide that people are simply meant to inhabit certain stations of the social ladder. What stuck out to me more than anything is how the film demonstrates on a small scale how humanity works things out – usually through awful actions – by being only slightly nudged into action. The conspiracy theorist in me sometimes likes to imagine there is a small, powerful group of people out there controlling the world and causing wars and atrocity behind the scenes. That part of me got into this film as it showed that happening on the smaller scale of a train.
The action of “Snowpiercer” is that of a revolution spearheaded by Curtis (Chris Evans) who has spent equal parts of life on Earth and the train – 17 years each.
The film opens on the back section at its worst. People are crammed into the back cars, fed gelatinous “protein bars” and subjugated by the front section. Their children are sometimes taken away, never to be seen again without explanation.
Severe punishments are doled out for any rebellious action – there is a disturbing limb removal early on. Life is awful for everyone, and they’ve reached their breaking point. Not to spoil anything, but a revolution does occur fairly early in the film, and “Snowpiercer” becomes equals parts action film and social commentary.
The action and overall look of the film affected me the most. The world Bong Joon-ho created for this train is amazing. The cobbled-together living quarters of the back of the train contrast greatly with the front cars, which is probably the easiest feat of the film – just look at “The Hunger Games,” “Elysium,” etc. for more examples of extreme class differences. More impressively, this world feels real and lived in. There is a history of failed revolutions and trying times that is only referenced but feels present in each character. Since the film takes place on a train, it allows for some great framing in scenes featuring the powerful speaking to the downtrodden. You get to see all of the miserable faces while someone in power, like Tilda Swinton’s Mason, speaks to them about accepting their place in life … and on the train. All of this and the excellent, brutal action is set to diverse music by Marco Beltrami. It all just comes together in a unique way for this film, and all involved deserve credit, like the creators of the source material and co-screenwriter Kelly Masterson.
“Snowpiercer” is my favorite film of the year – so far – for three reasons beyond the aforementioned praise I’ve heaped upon it: the absurdity factor, its similarity to the “Silo” series by author Hugh Howey and the “Bioshock” videogame series, and the unpredictability of it all.
First, the absurd. As I mentioned before, many people who take issue with this film immediately attack the premise which they find too implausible. Defenders of the film usually state that you should accept the “problems” so the metaphor of society through train can work, but I defend the absurdity of the premise on the grounds that the film acknowledges it. There are many moments that could leave you scratching your head – the use of a fish before a fight, a ridiculous shootout across train cars, impromptu holiday celebrations in otherwise serious fights, Swinton’s strange mannerisms and dialogue, etc. These moments gave the film some much needed levity at times, made the film unique and showed just how messed up the human race could get if forced to survive on a train for years. That, perhaps, is most important to me: showing that this world is not the old one. A new, weird, terrible, absurd world has been created. It’s enough to make you wonder if you want anybody to survive, which is certainly a credit to the ideas of the film.
Secondly, the “Silo” and “Bioshock” series are near and dear to me, and since there is no film version of either – yet – “Snowpiercer” appealed to me because I found it to be a spiritual sibling of those stories of failed utopias, world-building gone wrong and revolution.
Finally, this was a film that I didn’t have figured out early on. Not that there aren’t movies that completely confuse me – hello, “Holy Motors” – but when it comes to movies about social injustices or sci-fi struggles, I can usually guess where it’s going to end up and who’s going to end up there. With “Snowpiercer,” the majority of my expectations were upended by the end of the film. I enjoy unpredictability in a movie more than anything because after watching so many, it’s easy to end up on autopilot as you watch, especially if you’re watching at home. But the surprises of this film kept me glued to it as if I was in the theater. So I suppose they knew what they were doing when they released it on demand.
My focus on the weirdness and style of the film should not be seen as a slight against the actors. Evans is still in action mode here, but he gets plenty of strong character moments which he handles very well. Plus, he pulls off the revolut-ionary look very convincingly. John Hurt is perfectly cast in a mentor role. Swinton is likewise a great choice for the quirky Mason. Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko are fantastic as a father-daughter duo. I could go on and on; the point is that there is not a weak point in the diverse cast.
That’s about all there is to say about this film – as if I haven’t gone on long enough. I typically don’t like to write this much about a film – I like to keep it about half this length – but when I see a movie that works on so many levels for me, it gets me excited about writing reviews in general again, especially since many people might not even be aware of this movie. So if you’re into sci-fi, social-struggle metaphors, cool action, or just weird movies in general, check “Snowpiercer” out. You don’t even need to move from your couch to do it, either, so stop reading me gush about it, and watch it for yourself.
A Cannelton resident, Harris is a movie buff and blogger who posts reviews of films at www.canneltoncritic.com.