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Film Review: Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer (2014; Directed by Bong Joon-ho)

Bong Joon-ho’s alternately viscerally brutal and thoroughly ludicrous dystopian action thriller Snowpiercer is such an indescribable cinematic text that even an accurate synopsis does not begin to scratch the surface of its bleak, steely, bloody vision. To state it matter-of-factly, Snowpiercer is about a stark future in which the entire surviving remnant of humanity travels through a permafrozen landscape aboard a self-sustaining, socially-stratified train running on an eternal global loop. But this description does little justice to Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho’s harshly ambitious, remarkably designed, and often functionally insane visual, thematic, and sociopolitical embellishments to a much simpler French graphic novel narrative along the same lines. It will likely also prove impossible to properly discuss Snowpiercer and its bold but incoherent implications without spoiling its juiciest plot elements, so avoid this review’s final paragraphs if you want to stay relatively fresh vis-à-vis the material.

As my above synopsis stated, the titular train is all that is left of human civilization come 2031, 17 years after an ill-advised attempt to reverse global warming triggered a deep and permanent ice age that wiped out all non-rail-bound life on the planet (at least as far as the trainbound survivors know). Bong (who co-wrote the screenplay with Kelly Masterson) immerses his audience in the gritty details of life on the eternal rails before trickling out the full establishing tale, but let me summarize off the top.

As Earth froze, a small privileged elite found passage on the Snowpiercer, designed and built by a Howard Hughesian eccentric named Wilford (Ed Harris shows up near the conclusion to play him as a smug neat-freak in a silk bathrobe) to run forever on a circular track around the world. Running on a perpetual motion engine, apparently self-sustaining and stocked with foodstuffs, a water source, and other necessities good for an unspecified number of years, Wilford’s train becomes the world and the man himself, safely ensconsced at the front of the locomotive as custodian of its deity-like engine, becomes this little mobile world’s Dear Leader.

The wealthy inhabitants of the frontwards cars, with their arboretums, swimming pools, pop-up sushi bars, and druggy raves, are not alone on the train, however. A band of ragged, desperate survivors embarked uninvited when the train began its long voyage after the icy apocalypse. This permanent underclass dwells in ramschackle tenement-like closeness at the very rear of the train, kept in check by oppressive strictures, fed gelatinous protein blocks (they ain’t made of tofu, that’s for sure), their children occasionally taken from them without cause or warning by a nonplussed functionary (Emma Levie). Another flunky of the powers-that-be named Mason (a deliriously wacky Tilda Swinton) lectures the poor tail inhabitants about the proper order of things on the train, the necessity of keeping to their station (which just happens to be worst one). She presides over the terrible corporal punishment of one man (Ewen Bremner) who defies the Wilfordian hierarchy: his arm is exposed to the frozen exterior for seven minutes and then shattered off with a hammer.

An elder (John Hurt) who also lacks a pair of limbs (though he didn’t lose them through the previously-described punitive measures, let’s just say) is the inspirational leader of the latest uprising. Gilliam (the name is very much a homage to the Brazil and 12 Monkeys director, an obvious influence) instructs the younger and more hale Curtis (Chris Evans) that he and his collaborators must force their way as far forward on the train as possible; if they can reach the water supply, they’ll have a bargaining chip to extract better conditions from Wilford and the front-car leadership. They spring a security expert (Song Kang-ho, a frequent Bong compatriot) from the morgue-drawer-like prison that holds him to open the gates for the rebels as far as the water car. This is the plan, but Curtis’ grim survivalist ingenuity and fighting skills get them much farther than anticipated, and much deeper into the dark heart of the train’s system of social order.

Bong places the credits for his production designer (Ondrej Nekvasil) and art director (Stefan Kovacik) before any others at the film’s commencement, an appreciative statement as to how much Snowpiercer‘s particular vision is shaped by their work. The environmental variation and architectural scope of the trainboard setting is very impressive and immersive. At many points, the well-appointed luxuries of the privileged are directly contrasted with the violent viscera of oppression. Sometimes the latter images become rather oppressive in themselves: a savage axes-and-spears battle sequence between the advancing rebels from the tail and a small army of black-hooded thugs protecting the front is an exhausting ordeal for the viewer as well as for the characters involved, and an intimately-cut fight scene in a sauna car radiates with disconcerting, hellish reds, oranges, and yellows.

Attention! Who took the rest of my medals?

The highlight of both this juxtapositional design and Boon’s black-edged sociopolitical satire comes in a disturbingly cheery classroom for the children of the front-car elite. Indoctrinated to accept the train’s design as a miracle and its enforced stratification as an unquestionable natural order, the children watch cartoon propaganda videos on Wilford’s life and work, participate in loopy singalongs about obeying so as not to die, and snottily refer to the dead non-passenger multitudes as “friggin’ idiots who got turned into popsicles”. The hilariously forced schooltime positivity snaps and becomes merciless violence soon enough (you come to expect that turn pretty quickly in Bong’s film), but until it does it’s a rare and very welcome burst of inspired, barbed comedy in a film overfull of graphic barbarism. Swinton’s Mason, a primly nervous and manipulative Thatcheresque grotesque with an overbite and full-moon glasses, is the delightful character that matches this brief, delightful setting, and Snowpiercer loses some vital comedic energy when she departs it.

The political message of Snowpiercer smashes into the audience’s collective brains with the brutal directness of the hammer to that frozen arm, with similar shattering results (spoilers follow as to the discussion of exactly how that works). The wish-fulfilling revolutionary overthrow of discriminatory social, economic, and political conditions has become almost saturatingly common in recent years in the cinema; these artistic-ideological predilections have even trickled down to the notoriously disposable teen culture of the West through The Hunger Games and the like. Snowpiercer hops onto this particular train of discontentment with the exploitative capitalist system very eagerly, but complicates the narrative of glorious upheaval.

As Curtis reaches the very front of the train and meets Wilford at his dinner table, Bong lays out his and Masterson’s tweak on the formula. Like The Architect’s hyper-intellectual monologue at the “everything-you-think-you-know-is-wrong” climax of The Matrix Reloaded or the conclusion of Sonmi-451’s orison in Cloud Atlas (like Terry Gilliam, the Wachowskis are another major informing influence), Wilford reveals to Curtis that his revolt, like all previous ones onboard the train, was engineered by the front in collaboration with the rear (old friends Wilford and Gilliam, specifically) to provide a vital conduit for the underclass’ restless energies as well as to cull their numbers to prevent dangerous overcrowding of the tail cars. Power inscribes its own resistances, as Foucault insisted, and exploits those resistances to re-assert and buttress the terms of their hegemony.

This climactic theme is insistently underscored by the cascade of visceral horrors that Bong Joon-ho depicts as instrumental in maintaining the fragile equilibrium of the train world’s order. A bit too insistently, to be honest. By the time Curtis is monologuing about knowing what babies taste like (better than other sorts of human, apparently), even the hardiest enthusiasts of the stomach-churning one-up-manship of Korean genre films’ “strong” subject matter must be feeling overwhelmed. How many amputations, impalements, stabbings, and dead pregnant women does he need to tell this story?

If only Bong had utilized even half of the creative energy that he expends disturbing us in explaining Snowpiercer‘s numerous logical inconsistencies, his creation may have held together better. How, for example, are the tracks or train wheels maintained? Is there no better plan for dealing with icy route blockages than to smash through them at speed, risking a catastrophic derailment? Where do the upper-crusters in the front section sleep (we never see their quarters)? And when the sole survivors escape the train and are stared down by a polar bear in the final frames, is this a message of hope and renewal (life finds a way, etc.) or are they about to be a light ursine lunch? Only so much belief can be suspended, and this is only one way in which Snowpiercer asks for too much and provides too little to compensate.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. January 2, 2015 at 3:09 pm

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