‘Snowpiercer’: A white, hot look at a cold, dark future

This movie has been out for the rest of the world for almost a year now, but The Weinstein Company in its infinite wisdom withheld it from American and U.K. audiences. This is due to Harvey Weinstein, the man in charge of the aforementioned distribution, and his infamous cutting process. See, Weinstein is known for cutting large portions of films under his control in order to make them “more digestible and marketable for an American audience.” (See Hero and just about any other film by an Asian director he picked up over the past decade.) This was certainly the case when Weinstein saw fit to cut a good 25 minutes from the original cut of ‘Snowpiercer.’ This was no good for Korean director Bong Joon-ho (The Host and Mother), who disputed the cuts which led to a lengthy negotiation process. Eventually Joon-ho won out and the movie available is the version he intended for audiences to see. Unfortunately this cost the film its marketing and widespread immediate distribution. This basically means this multi-million dollar blockbuster is being treated like an indie art house flick. One must applaud or at least respect Joon-ho for taking his craft over his paycheck. Not many other directors working today can say the same. -COUGHMICHAELBAYCOUGH-

Now I don’t want to dismiss editing movies down to a digestible length. I can think of a few films that have come out recently that could use a length cutting process. -COUGHANYTHINGBYMICHAELBAYCOUGH- Wow. I must be coming down with something. I digress. Was Joon-ho in the right fighting for his cut? Is this risky big-budget obscure French comic book adaptation worth all of that trouble? Yes. Very, very, VERY yes.

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 The Plot:

In a future where a failed global-warming experiment kills off all life on the planet except for a lucky few that boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe, where a class system evolves and the threat of revolution is ever present.

The Review:

 I am a casual fan of Mr. Joon-ho’s directorial efforts. 2009’s The Host (not to be confused with the 2013 adaptation of the Stephanie Meyer novel) is easily one of the better giant monster movies of the past decade and Mother is a somber drama perforated by lighter breaks. Other than those two films, I am not too familiar with his work. After seeing Snowpiercer however, I will now follow this man’s career with fevered interest.

This film is truly one of the most uniquely fascinating, exiting, and down-right disturbing big-budget science fiction films to come out in a good long while. Count this as one of the biggest cinematic surprises of the year. Not only did it have zero marketing, but it is based around a pretty ludicrous premise: a second ice age has forced the remaining remnants of humanity onto a single train and all of the action in the film takes place on said train.

And it is in this bizarre plot that the film finds its greatest strengths. Joon-ho, along with his set designers, conceptional artists, etc., have created a beautiful film with expertly designed spaces that change from scene to scene. The “What’s behind the next door?” set-up pays off magnificently as the film never jumps ahead to any of the cars and allows the audience to travel with the core characters from set-piece to set-piece, accompanied by some well-written and never smultzy political symbolism.

Speaking of, what’s good sci-fi without a healthy dose of political undertones? The template of the social hierarchy are replicated on the train with the rich near the front and the poor in the back. (It is almost impossible to not see the similarities this film shares with Bioware’s Bioshock video game series.) The train’s conductor, the mysterious Wilford, insists that there is a natural order to things and that a certain status quo must be maintained. Therefore poverty is imposed, wealth is imposed, vast shortages are imposed, and an overall social conformity is imposed. As humanity broke the world with global warming and its ill-advised attempts to correct it, it’s only fitting that it begins to implement the same self-destructive patterns within the confines of the train; the train being a figurative cornucopia for possible metaphors and individual interpretations. The train’s structure is a metaphor for our society, its isolation as our separation from our constructed world from the natural, and its never-ending path represents our seemingly never ending self-destructive tendencies masked as our attempts at self-elevation.

The message of the film, or at least what I took away from it, is that if we don’t want to break the world again, we need to break the social systems in order to survive. Unfortunately for those at the bottom though, those social systems move at their own speed at a relentless momentum, just like the train.

Like with Joon-ho’s previous films, there are quite of few tough/disturbing sequences throughout Snowpiercer. Some characters pay a hefty price for their respective plights unlike with other science fiction blockbusters out right now… let’s say Transformers: Age of Extinction. I know. I know. I am taking a lot of shots at Mr. Bay. I haven’t even seen the newest installment in his Transformer franchise, but I have seen the previous three and I think it is a fair assumption that the fourth film isn’t exactly a break from the mold he built with those films. It is also interesting to note that these films and Snowpiercer share more than one thing in common. That being the case, I will finally arrive at my point. Those movies continually threaten the lives of its characters and kills off a number of them. I feel little to no connection to ANY of the characters in Transformers, most likely to the fact that they are thinly constructed illusions that barely count as characters and the movie is filled to the brim with them. This movie features quite a few characters. They are given notable traits and limited screen time, but they never devolve into caricatures. When one of the good guys bites it, you feel the loss. The action scenes are constructed in such a way that you feel each hit along with the characters, and their mission’s importance is never lost in the maelstrom of violence and mayhem that they find themselves in.

As you could have guessed by the trailer, this film sports a pretty impressive cast led most notably by Chris Evans. Evans has always been a top-tier actor to me as he traverses between big Hollywood spectacles like Captain America: The Winter Solider to quieter, character driven films like Puncture. This film is the happy marriage between the two for Evans, and it is a testament to his skills as an actor and his first true star-making performance. His character, Curtis, is not unlike Steve Rodgers. He is quietly driven to protect but is also haunted by a very dark past, perpetually carrying a nearly visible chip on his shoulder. He never sees himself as a leader, but often finds himself forced into that role. His heroics often mask a terrible knowledge that eats away at him There are not many scenes in which he directly addresses his internal conflict, but when he does, Evans proves his a master at nuance and leveling his emotions without forcing the scene into eye-rolling melodrama.   It’s hard to believe that the same man who can pull off this scene so brilliantly can also pull off this one equally so. Fingers crossed Mr. Evans doesn’t call it quits too soon.

The rest of the cast is more than up to par with Evans’ efforts with recognizable faces like John Hurt, Ed Harris, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Ewen Bremner and Alison Pill all making appearances. The film also sports some new faces to Western audiences and shows off that this really is an international effort. Joon-ho regulars Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung round out the main cast as a drug addicted father/daughter team who specialize in cracking the train’s electric doors. Just like in The Host these two are scene stealers in their own right, but work even better when they are paired together. Also appearing is Romanian actor  Vlad Ivanov of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days fame as Franco the Elder, one of the most hatable villains in recent memory. Seriously. You are going to cheering for this guy’s death in the same way you did for this little cunt’s.

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Snowpiercer is many things. It’s bold, daring, and ambitious. It looks like a stupid and enjoyable summer tentpole film and carries the themes of a devastating indie drama.  Its a movie where the questions are big and existential and the answers are grim and tough. The ending, while hopeful, leaves the audience with a lot to thing about long after the credits quit rolling. This is a movie that looks to challenge you and deserves your attention.

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2 thoughts on “‘Snowpiercer’: A white, hot look at a cold, dark future

  1. It’s a strange film that goes into some odd places, without ever turning back. For that, I respected it, but I also had a bunch of fun with it as well. Good review.

  2. This was my favorite summer movie until I saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

    It’s interesting how some of these “Summer Blockbusters” can tackle a lot of complicated issues with more maturity than some “serious Oscar” movies.

    I mean, sometimes it happens!

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