Monday, June 30, 2014

Snowpiercer


Grade: 70/B

At this point, Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer is as well known for its battle behind-the-scenes with distributor Harvey Weinstein, who wanted several minutes cut from the film, as it is for being the Korean auteur’s English-language debut. Bong’s grim vision made it to theaters intact (albeit on only a few screens), and it’s quite a film. Loosely based on a French graphic novel, Snowpiercer shows Bong working in sci-fi allegory mode along the lines of Jean-Pierre Jeunet/Marc Caro and Terry Gilliam. If the film can’t quite measure up to its ambitions, its no less fascinating because of it.

2031: seventeen years after an experiment to counteract global warming started a new ice age, the only survivors live in a giant train called the Snowpiercer. The train is divided between the rich, who live in the front of the train, and the poor, consigned to the tail, living in abject poverty (they dine only on protein blocks made from truly nasty stuff) and under strict enforcement by armed guards. Any uprising is quickly squelched, and any sign of disobedience is punished severely.

The tail inhabitants have had enough, and, in an uprising led by Curtis (Chris Evans) and masterminded by Gilliam (John Hurt, named in a nod to one of Bong’s influences), they make their way through the train with to the prisoner car and rescue Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho), an addict who agrees to help them open the train doors (which he designed) in exchange for the drug. But the group finds that the rich have more supplies and weapons at their disposal than they’d initially believed, suffering heavy casualties. They also learn of some of the terrible secrets of the train kept by both sides.

This only covers a handful of the characters and sidetracks of Snowpiercer, which also include: Namgoong Minsu’s fellow-addict daughter (Go Ah-sung), who makes a connection with Curtis; Curtis’s excitable right-hand man Edgar (Jamie Bell); a number of poor children taken to the front of the train for unknown purposes, and a pair of distraught parents (Octavia Spencer and Ewen Bremner) looking for them; and a number of true believers of mysterious train creator/leader Wilford, including Tilda Swinton as a Minister, Vlad Ivanov as her henchman, and Alison Pill as a psychotically chipper schoolteacher.

Even at Bong’s intended two-hour runtime, Snowpiercer doesn’t have enough time to devote to all of these characters. Spencer and Bell remain frustratingly underdeveloped, with the latter’s underuse especially lessening the impact of a major twist later on. Other developments, such as the big reveal as to what exactly the children are being brought to the front of the train for, are brought in so late in the game that the film isn’t able to make much of them.

Snowpiercer also runs into trouble with its lead. Chris Evans is a likable enough presence, but he doesn’t have the rough-and-tumble charisma the character needs, nor is he able to fully sell a late reveal about his Curtis’s past. He’s serviceable enough in the role, but if ever a film required a modern equivalent to Kurt Russell or Harrison Ford, this is it.

But Snowpiercer largely works anyway, thanks to Bong’s assured direction. The film’s giant sets are a marvel, creating and utilizing a fully-realized bifurcated environment that helps ground the film’s blunt class allegory in a way last year’s Elysium couldn’t. It’s no less simplistic than that film, but it’s a more compelling vision that exists for reasons beyond the purpose of pushing talking-points (or shooting-points) from point A to point B.

As he proved with The Host, Bong is a remarkable director of action, shooting the race towards the front of the train with building momentum while constantly shifting which side has the upper-hand at any given moment. The film is at its best, however, when it’s flying off the rails (forgive the pun). Bong’s films frequently fluctuate in tone from grim drama to broad comedy, but rarely more delightfully than when he’s putting Swinton’s deranged upper-class official in extreme close-up, or when Pill’s pregnant schoolteacher goes from singing a happy song about the vision of the train’s builder (“What happens if the engine stops?/We all freeze and die!”) to becoming much more dangerous. Snowpiercer is a bit all over the place, but that’s part of its appeal; it’s so doggedly determination to take the blockbuster and make something so damned weird with it.

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