by Paul Deines
Last week I got around to seeing Guardians of the Galaxy, that new Marvel entry that folks are calling the new Star Wars. It is a heck of a lot of fun, a rip-snorting space opera with a jaunty script and a game cast. I’d have zero qualms about recommending it, but I also feel like everyone is overdoing it on the praise. GOTG is a great flick, but I feel like there’s another beloved action film people should check out. It’s also about a band of outsiders going up against insurmountable odds. It also has a lot of futuristic world-building, and it’s based on a comic. It even has a Marvel mainstay in the lead role. I’m talking about South Korean auteur Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer.
Snowpiercer opens with expository title-cards (and one jarring apocalyptic image) explaining how humanity made a rash bid to reverse global warming and inadvertently froze the Earth past the point of habitability. The only survivors now reside in the massive eponymous train. It hurtles around the world and serves as a Pequod-like microcosm of a profoundly unequal society. The meat of the narrative consists of band of have-nots from the rear cars, led by Chris Evans, Jamie Bell and omni-amputee John Hurt. They aim to seize the train dandies up front.
There are so many selling points to this film, I’m almost lost enumerating them. So, I’ll start with the exceptional international cast. Hurt, Bell and Evans are serviceable as the moral center of the picture, but the money performances are supporting turns. Octavia Spencer and Ewen Bremner round out the revolutionaries, playing not idealists but rather desperate parents seeking children abducted by the elites. Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko (of Bong’s The Host) are simultaneously goofy and heartbreaking as a drug-addled father and daughter with knowledge of the train’s security systems.
The villains, though, walk away with the movie. Vlad Ivanov (terrifying several years back in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) plays the type of unstoppable heavy Michael Ironside played in the 80s and 90s. The always-charming Alison Pill taps an unnerving chipperness as a schoolteacher/propagandist. Finally, Tilda Swinton, as she’s wont to do, steals every scene as Mason, the ambassador to the back cars. A quisling of the highest order, she’s is not a highborn but a braying apparatchik with a Northern English accent and bad teeth. Mason enjoys the beneficence of the chief engineer, so she preaches adoration to the holy engine and the virtue of knowing one’s place in society. Her fantastically entertaining character reveals Snowpiercer as a critique of the marriage between unfettered capitalism and religion.
And as for the chief engineer: if you don’t know the actor playing him by now, avoid the press (including the trailer below) before seeing the film. It’s a perfect casting choice.
Most startling about Snowpiercer is the world it creates. The train is realized by Bong as a throbbing organism at once nurturing and withholding. The fabulously kinetic nature of this setting constantly rocks and twists, drawing characters into and away from each other as the train rounds corners. The opening of the film takes place in the back compartments, which are rusted, overcrowded and dim. I was reminded of Terry Gilliam (The namesake, I imagine, of the train’s engineer) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Their world is filled with tattered rags, cramped bunks and unpleasant protein-rich gelatin bars (the provenance of which is either much better or much worse than you suspect).
The mystery of forward cars, locked behind armored doors, is what makes this a compelling narrative. Several reviews have revealed details of the cars, but – once again – I suggest you avoid learning anything about what lies ahead. I will say that the movement from want to plenty is stark, more so than I expected. Snowpiercer, as a dramatization of the rage of the disenfranchised in the face of unimaginable privilege, was especially prescient viewed at a movie theater in a post-Bloomberg New York. There are times that the dichotomies of this town feel something like the train’s.
But I’ve digressed. On a purely visceral level, Snowpiercer is one hell of an adventure pic. The excitement one gets from South Korean action is not unlike the hype that surrounded Hong Kong’s in the 1990s. Whereas the latter was marked by over-the-top balletic fights, Korean action is filmed like high art. Think of the “hammer scene” in Oldboy or the sweeping opening train robbery in Bong’s The Good, the Bad and the Weird. There is a magnificently choreographed, shot, and art-directed hatchet battle at the center of Snowpiercer. It opens with a genuinely odd incitement involving a fish, then proceeds in light and blackout darkness, in slow motion, by firelight. And it’s interrupted midway to celebrate a holiday. It’s a brilliant several minutes.
After the Weinstein Company purchased US distribution rights for Snowpiercer, the film world responded in shock as the distributor tried to force the director to trim his ending. Ultimately, the Weinsteins relented. So I feel more than a little chagrined that the ending of the film is the reason I cannot champion it without reservation. I’ve noticed that South Korean films often succumb to excessive speechifying in the final act. Well, that’s triply so in Snowpiercer: Evans, Kang-ho and the actor who plays the big baddie all get extended monologues. Also, there’s crosscutting between three different locations on the train. And a couple prolonged spiritual visions. Plus a long fight sequence and some explosions.
Anyway, it doesn’t torpedo the film. How could it? Snowpiercer is everything I love about film. It’s relentlessly entertaining, assertively political, and it goes for broke in every way. Nothing that assured can be bad, and this film is a wondrous vision.