12 Monkeys, action films, Alison Pill, auteur theory, betrayal, Blade Runner, Bong Joon-Ho, Chris Evans, cinema, class systems, class warfare, climate change, dystopian future, Ed Harris, end of the world, English-language debut, Ewen Bremner, Film auteurs, film reviews, films, Hunger Games, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Ko Ah-sung, Luke Pasqualino, Movies, near future, Octavia Spencer, rich vs poor, sci-fi, Snowpiercer, Song Kang-ho, Steve Park, The Host, Tilda Swinton, trains
Nowadays, with the space between the haves and have-nots not so much a gap as a massive, bottomless chasm filled with baying hellhounds, the notion of class warfare has never been more prescient. Increasingly, it seems that the world can be neatly divided into two groups: those who can afford the basic necessities of life (food, clean water, housing, security, justice) and those who must struggle to divide up whatever dregs remain. We can argue notions of economics, supply-and-demand, consumerism, et al until the cows come home but it does nothing to change the basic facts: as it stands, our modern world is but several very slippery steps away from the feudal system that proved so “effective” during the Middle Ages. While issues of race, gender, religion and nationality will always plague humanity, anyone who doesn’t see the underlying class issues behind them is either willfully ignorant…or a part of the problem.
For his English-language debut, Snowpiercer (2014) Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho takes a good, long look at this underlying class warfare, wrapping it tight within the guise of an environmental message film before bundling everything up within a stream-lined sci-fi/action outer-shell: if you will, Joon-ho’s film is the turducken of big-budget multiplex fare, a multi-layered feast that reveals new flavors and wrinkles with each turn of the script. If the ultimate result ends up feeling somehow less revelatory than expected, it does nothing to detract from the overall quality of the film: anyone worried that making the transition to English-language films would blunt Joon-ho’s edge should check their fears at the door, since Snowpiercer is nothing if not a highly accomplished spectacle, relentlessly paced and endlessly thrilling.
From the outset, we learn that efforts to reverse global warming, involving a material known as “CW-7” have proven a little too successful: the Earth has now frozen and the vast majority of life has been wiped out. The only survivors now live on a massive “super-train” that zooms in a perpetual, never-ending loop around the frozen desolation, unable to ever step foot outside lest they instantly freeze. Aboard the train, similar to the breakdown on the Titanic, the survivors have been separated into two groups: the wealthy, powerful members of society get the front of the train and all of the perks (real food, drink, tanning beds, raves, shopping, sushi), while the poor, downtrodden masses get the tail section and live in complete squalor, subsisting on some sort of strange, black “food” substance and whatever scraps the upper berths don’t want. To make matters worse, the poor are constantly beaten and abused by the thuggish security detail and have their children constantly taken from them, spirited away to the front of the train, never to be seen again. The system is stretched to breaking and something must change…and change, it does.
Revolution enters the picture in the form of Curtis (Chris Evans), the charismatic “folk leader” of the lower classes who, along with their de facto leader, Gilliam (John Hurt), has devised a plan to wrest control of the train from the haves and return it to the have-nots. Quite simply, “whoever controls the engine, controls the world,” and Curtis knows that their only hope for change is to fight their way all the way to the front of the train. At first, the task seems all but impossible: the security detail is huge, well-armed and cold-blooded; the ruling regime, represented by the bizarrely presentational Mason (Tilda Swinton), don’t see the lower classes as anything other than fodder and free labor, so have absolutely no problem with dispatching as many of them as necessary to make their point. During the moment of truth, however, as Curtis’ rebels square off against the security team, something miraculous happens: the guards are revealed to be out of ammo, after all. Fortune, it appears, has just smiled on the brave.
Seizing the moment, Curtis and his fighters gain the upper-hand and begin their perilous trek to the front of the train, working their way towards a climatic meeting with Wilford (Ed Harris), the mysterious industrialist and engineer who not only foresaw the current environmental crisis but created the Ark as humanity’s last recourse. Along the way, the group picks up Nam (Song Kang-ho) and his daughter, Yona (Ko Ah-sung), a pair of drug addicts who may just know how to get Curtis into the engine room. As the group will find out, however, nothing on the train is quite as it seems and Curtis will soon be neck-deep in betrayal, shocking revelations and life-changing decisions. At stake? Nothing less than the fate of all humanity.
For the most part, Snowpiercer works spectacularly well on several different levels. For one thing, the film is a superb action film, showcasing several impressive set-pieces (the tunnel massacre is pretty unforgettable) and throttling forward at a breakneck pace. We’re jumped into the action from the get-go and the film never really lets up: in some ways, it almost feels as if we’re dumped into Snowpiercer in media res, although the film is streamlined enough that abject flailing about is fairly minimal. Everything is filmed in a highly stylized, kinetic fashion that will be immediately familiar to fans of Joon-ho’s back catalog (especially his iconic monster flick, The Host (2006) and the various fight scenes, full of highly evocative slo-mo and balletic movements, are consistently impressive.
Snowpiercer also succeeds as a dystopic future flick, albeit one that doesn’t add much to the lexicon: even the revelation of the icky looking protein bars (Spoiler: it’s not people) feels like part of a fairly well-established formula. That being said, the film’s look and world-building is fully immersive: this is recognizably our world but it’s tweaked enough to give a proper sense of disorientation. It reminded me of Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995), although Joon-ho’s particular vision isn’t quite as singular or unique. There are moments when the film approaches the iconic city scenes of Blade Runner (1982), especially during our introduction to the tail section of the train and the moment where our heroes first pass into the posh upper class section.
The third area where Snowpiercer excels is as a message film: while the script can, occasionally, be a little too on the nose, there are plenty of layers here and some truly interesting discussions of responsibility, personal sacrifice and the value of the individual against the many. Wilford may be the film’s de facto villain (although Swinton’s ludicrously over-the-top Mason fits that bill in a more classic manner) but his climatic meeting with Curtis raises more questions than it answers: a latter-half revelation puts his actions into a new light, making easy condemnations just a little bit harder. Wilford may be a real son of a bitch but he’s anything but arbitrary: the fact that he, technically, has a point doesn’t absolve him or his peers of responsibility for their terrible actions but it should definitely lead to some interesting post-film conversations/arguments. In many ways, Wilford represents the unwavering, coldly clinical eye of government: decisions and actions that seem unconscionable on the ground sometimes take on a different meaning from the war room.
Despite all of the pluses, however, I must freely admit that I didn’t find Snowpiercer to be the complete revelation that others have: if anything, the film is an exceptionally well-made, tightly plotted action with lots of themes and meaning but, ultimately, not much different from similarly intelligent multiplex fare. Often, I was reminded of the Hunger Games series: while Snowpiercer is a much more mature, artistic film, craft-wise, it’s really not that far removed, thematically. Unlike the uncomfortable class discussions of something like Society (1989), nothing in Snowpiercer really feels “game-changing,” as it were: we’ve seen this particular conflict many, many times over the years and, while it may be timely, it’s certainly not shocking. This is not to knock the film’s themes in any way, however: I would rather see an overly familiar discussion of class and environmentalism on the big screen than no discussion at all, thank you very much. That being said, I frequently found myself wishing that the film took a few more risks: even the double-crosses felt a bit familiar and the ending, while beautifully executed, didn’t seem to pack the punch that it could have.
Ultimately, however, my quibbles about Snowpiercer feel fairly petty: above and beyond all else, this is the kind of intelligent popcorn film that we definitely need more of in this era of the “turn your brain off and react” action film. The acting is excellent, with Captain America’s (2011) Chris Evans almost unrecognizable as the grizzled hero and Song Kang-ho serving as a more than suitable foil. If Hurt and Swinton end up turning in yet more variations on their past work (“gruff mentor” and “quirky oddball” could very well be chiseled on their gravestones, at some point in the far future), it doesn’t take away from the basic pleasure of watching either one work. Ditto for Ed Harris who’s managed to avoid disappointing me for at least a couple decades now: a film could do a lot worse than have him play a megalomanical leader with a God-complex and distinct ideas on the social contract.
Is Snowpiercer one of the best films of the year, however? To be honest, it’s kind of a difficult question to answer. The film is certainly one of the best action films of the last several years, hands down, but I just can’t help shake the feeling that it’s still slightly less than what it could have been. Despite it’s epic scope and feel, Snowpiercer, somehow, feels like a slightly lesser film than The Host. Chalk this up to to the transition from more personalized family struggles in one to more “universal” issues in the other and we begin to see where the issue may lie. While watching Snowpiercer, I kept waiting to feel the intense connection to the characters that I did with the family in The Host but it really only happened with Nam and his daughter: whenever the two of them share the screen, Snowpiercer is able to transcend its sci-fi/action trappings and become something simultaneously more intimate and more far-reaching. In a film that purports to be about the very essence of humanity, it’s only when we spend time with this disenfranchised father and daughter, so wrecked by life yet still so inherently hopeful, that the film truly seems to come alive. I’d like to say it’s enough to melt the most frozen heart but that would be kind of precious, wouldn’t it?