Adapted for the screen by Kelly Masterson and Bong Joon-Ho from the French graphic novel “Le Transpercenegie” and directed by Bong Joon-Ho, ‘Snowpiercer’ is a post-apocalyptic thriller. Earth is frozen beyond being capable of sustaining any life but thanks to the genius of one man, a rattling, clattering super-train now carries not only the last survivors of the human race, but life itself, endlessly circling the planet, just waiting for the day when the world will thaw and man can once again reclaim and rebuild the Earth. (By the way, man has no one to blame but himself for this New Ice Age as it came about thanks to an experiment to combat global warming gone awry.)
Implementing a class system within the physical structure of the train, delineating the “haves” from the “have-nots”, Director Bong delivers an electrifying, Oscar-worthy, visual stunner that will have you on the edge of your seat, fraught with white-knuckle tension, excitement and heart pounding action. As equally, if not more powerful as the than the film’s visuals however, is the underlying environmental, socio-political and geopolitical subtext and tacit commentary. Boasting an Oscar caliber and winning cast, among them, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, John Hurt and one of the world’s favorite super-heroes, Chris Evans, ‘Snowpiercer’ pierces the senses with Oscar-worthy stylization and performances while opening the eyes to a clarity of thought about the world around us.
As the train and its inhabitants mark the 17th year of this unending circuitous circle of life, an uprising by the “have nots” who inhabit the windowless slum in the tail section of the train, looms. Curtis, a quiet, head down yet always vigilant and aware kind of guy, has been planning and preparing for a siege that will move him and others forward through the 26 train cars to the engine and the man who has everything and commands everything – Wilford. It is Wilford who designed the train, runs the train, classified the inhabitants, decides on who gets to eat and who doesn’t. . .you get the picture. His right hand man is Mason, a Coke-bottle bespectacled St. John suited woman with a grotesque over-bite. Mason is the liaison between Wilford and “his people”. Mason is also the one who periodically comes and takes young children from the tail car, for what purpose no one knows. What they do know is the children never return.
Incited by little messages that are found in capsules placed in black agar food bars, Curtis along with his best friend Edgar and under the sage guidance of the “have nots” elder Gilliam, is ready to put their long conceived plan into action. The time is now. It’s full speed ahead to the engine and Wilford.
As Curtis, Chris Evans – as he did for Danny Boyle with “Sunshine” and as he has done multiple times as “Captain America” – is tacit strength; a thinking man that speaks with his eyes more than his vocal chords. The design of Curtis is mysterious and foreboding. Cloaked in dirt and darkness, hat pulled low onto his face, often shielding direct eye contact but for a few, and then staring down guards when necessary, Evans goes one better with stance and posture; hunched over when seemingly submissive or furtive; proud, erect with wide open expansive arms when leading, fighting, protecting. Evans needs no Marvel shield to be marvelous in ‘Snowpiercer’.
Jamie Bell turns in an unexpectedly fun performance making Edgar an indispensable snarky sidekick. Bell is a standout. This skinny blonde Englishman amongst all the dirt and grime; he is fun, engaging and serves as a loose emotional cannon that you can’t help but adore.
Tilda Swinton calling Oscar! Tilda Swinton calling Oscar! Absolutely delicious as Minister Mason. What sets out this performance even in her vast repertoire and not just within this film, is Mason’s belief in her own superiority and privilege and that of Wilford and his teachings. Very Chairman Mao with marvelous societal commentary lurking beneath the surface containing a powerful undertow and riptide through Mason. And Swinton just soars with it making Mason larger than life. Originally written as a male character, Swinton and Director Bong flipped the role on its ear and, as Swinton puts it, “built up a clown. I wanted to make a clown out of this politician who is this really sinister, corrupt individual. Apart from the fact that I think there are so many wonderfully corrupt clowns in cinema, from Dr. Strangelove to The Great Dictator, in life, you switch on the news and there will be someone posturing and making an idiot of themselves. People vote them in because they want a soap opera. So, that was really the key. We tried to push it as far as we could.” And they did. From “fantastic pendulist breasts” to “the wig that we never glued down” to the hilarity of false teeth, “[it was all] just part of the package.” Perhaps Swinton’s favorite part of creating Mason was the nose. “I always wanted to play a character with a nose.” While discussing the character with Director Bong, “ I went and got some tape, and we taped my nose up like [indicating a pig nose].” Swinton was so convincing and the script so well conceived it even made me think that perhaps there was no Wilford, that Mason was in charge. Brilliant fun!
And then there’s Ed Harris. Almost no one does commanding arrogance grandstanding of “I am right and I am a God” while adding a touch of self-deprecating humor better than Harris. As Wilford, he raises one’s ire so quickly and so effectively, you feel like you want to reach into the screen and rip his throat out. But then he tames you and rationalizes what he has done and while reprehensible, it makes sense on a global scale for survival (not to mention putting a face to centuries of societies with the same ideology and dogmas). As with Swinton, it was a no-brainer to come onboard ‘Snowpiercer’. “I would have played any role, if he’d asked me, just because I really appreciated his work. But the fact that he wanted me to play this guy who’s talked about through the whole film, and who’s the ‘Wizard of Oz’ behind a curtain, had some attraction to me. . . It’s so built up, who this guy is, and then he’s just this old guy making dinner with his robe on. Director Bong really wanted him to be matter of fact and mundane and simple.”
One can’t help but relate to Octavia Spencer’s Tanya (damn, she kicked ass – literally and figuratively) both in seeing the tenderness and the love she brings as a mother, but also as a strong powerful confident “can-do” woman and Black woman (although Director Bong and Kelly Masterson went a tad stereotypical with Tanya’s design). Spencer’s emotion comes from within with a defiance and strength is palpable and cheer worthy.
As comes as no surprise, there is more than meets the eye when it comes to John Hurt and his take on Gilliam. Hurt plays Gilliam so that we never quite know which way the wind will swing with him. Only little tidbits are elicited throughout the film through dialogue, although most telling that Gilliam is not who he seems is the red flag that goes up when acknowledged by Mason with such familiarity. There’s a history there. We just don’t know what it is. And then when all the puzzle pieces come together in the climactic 15 minutes once Ed Harris appears – mind-boggling and mind-bending.
Often overlooked in films is Tomas Lemarquis. He is so good at being bad and here as Egg-Head is malevolence personified but with a matter of fact casualness. Deliciously tongue-in-cheek is a key scene in which he’s passing out New Year’s eggs – and AK47s.
Now working with Director Bong for the second time after her debut in “The Host”, Ah-sung Ho is enchanting as Yona. Wide-eyed wonder and alleged clairvoyance…although the script falls a bit flat there and never explains why her “visions” only sometimes work. Also re-teaming with Ah-Sung Ho and Director Bong is Song Kang-Ho who, as he did in “The Host”, plays father to Ah-Sung Ho. As Namgoong Minsu, Song Kang-Ho navigates the line of appearing a drugged out yet caring father (or not) while still retaining skills as the security expert who created the train’s inter-carriage protective doors. Clark Middleton’s work as The Painter is particularly noteworthy. Observational, The Painter’s drawings are essentially the newspaper of the tail cars, metaphorically harkening to cave paintings, i.e., dawn of man and now the re-dawn of man. Middleton gives Painter a nervous edgy quality as if a reporter on a stakeout, feverishly trying to get a story before being caught and stopped, making great use of his eyes with up and down and peripheral movement, often in tandem with his drawing hand. Extremely powerful character and performance.
A beautifully told metaphor for our world, on many levels ‘Snowpiercer’ serves as a cautionary tale. Masterson and Director Bong construct a societal structure within the confines of the “rattling train”, speaking volumes as to the world as a whole while Wilford and his personal beliefs and dogmas speaks to world leaders like Mao, Hitler, Stalin, and even today’s political systems with uprisings and volatility – and manufactured situations. However, the whole idea of little red notes in little shell casings stuck in agar bars stuck out to me like a sore thumb as being more than meets the eye and rather cliche but, as a plot device for the “have nots”, the notes serve as messages of hope as opposed to destructive horror. The idea of the train, frozen world and even the metaphor of the word “Snowpiercer” warms the soul blending end of the world elements of Noah and his ark, “2012″ and its climate shifting tidal waves with select people placed on floating arks, and the world frozen over in “Day After Tomorrow” – visuals meet history meet theology meet politics meet science.
Although based on the graphic novel, Director Bong notes “the key ideas are there, such as the survivors on a moving train. Also visually, there are some things, like the greenhouse, that is in the original comic book. But in terms of design and visuals, my art team and production design team pretty much created the world of ‘Snowpiercer’.” And what a world it is!
A visualist if ever there was, Director Bong described the process of designing ‘Snowpiercer’. “We designed and built 26 different train cars [650 meters in total length], but because we had a limited budget, we had to plan ahead and use everything that we shot. But if you look at it on a bigger scale [for example], you can take the greenhouse section and the water section of the train, and divide it in two. . .you get to the greenhouse, and after that, you see the aquarium and the swimming pool, and you see where all of the rich people live. It is one train, but you see two different worlds inside of it. And then, at the very front is the engine. The design of the engine is different from the comic book.”
Given the physical set and that the entire film takes place in a train and not against a green screen, movement is a necessity to create that sensory experience which called on extensive use of a gimbal to rock and roll the train cars. As Ah-sung Ho told me, “The hardest part of filming was not vomiting from motion sickness.” Even Director Bong admits, “Sometimes we felt carsick on set. You really feel the effect of the gimbal in the beginning of the film, where you see Tilda [Swinton] make her speech. When she is doing the speech with the shoe, you can see down the tail section people and the movement. On set, I really felt like I was inside of a train. Also, there are no windows in the tail section, so the gimbal is really important. The sections with the windows, you can see the outside environment passing. But in the tail section, there are no windows, so the gimbal was essential to give that feeling of a train.”
Can we just scream Oscar nomination for Ondrej Nekvasil’s production design and Kyung-Pyo Hong’s cinematography! ‘Snowpiercer’ may well be the visual effects film of the year. Nekvasil’s work stuns. Breathtaking. Lush. Richly textured. The increasing use of color and architectural detail and richness in woods, upholstery, fabrications and furnishings is eye-popping yet methodical and calculated as if designed to not assault the sense all at once. Quite interesting story design in that regard. I am so appreciative of the meticulous design detail throughout. There are layers of grime and dirt in the tail cars. Nuance of shadow playing on dirty steel framed bunk beds, raggedy clothes, a golden glimmer of a worn faded dirty lamp shade in the tail cars that Kyung-Pyo Hong just celebrates with his lighting and lensing, moving into an almost steam punk golden hued look and then seguewaying into slick sleek stainless when it comes to the underpinnings and mechanics of the technical aspects of the train. The graduating increasing use of color and texture captivates the sense, starting with the eye, but then thanks to costuming like parkas, and steam rising from heated pools and saunas, the viewing experience becomes fully sensory, tantalizing, teasing. The 360 design of hydroponic gardens and the aquarium are not only beautiful, but with the cool rich tropical blue of the aquarium, heart-stoppingly wondrous. The production values on ‘Snowpiercer’ with the slick sleek gloss are as close to perfect as I’ve seen this year.
For Ed Harris, himself a director, when it comes to the nuts and bolts of directing, “The most interesting thing was the style of filming. . .If I was doing a scene and it was a couple pages long, he would never shoot the whole thing one way. He’d shoot a few lines, like the first beat of the scene, and then he would turn the camera around and get my part for that part of the scene. Then, he would change the angle a little bit. . .He was basically cutting while he was shooting. The editor was sitting right there on the stage, right below the set with a big tent, actually getting the footage as they were filming. Director Bong cuts while he’s filming, in a way. He’s very precise.”
One shortcoming of ‘Snowpiercer’ is an ending that doesn’t live up to the 90+ minutes that precede it. The story is so engrossing and the characters so intense – and human – we feel their plight. The film’s construct and direction has us so invested in each of these characters that we care, we ache, we hurt, we cheer inside – and yes, at times even laugh and seethe at the comical absurdity encapsulated within Tilda Swinton’s Oscar-worthy performance as Mason – all so much so that as the siege reigns on and our heroes advance ever-forward toward the engine, certain events occur that make the audience feel cheated. The final scene of the movie – which I will not divulge or spoil for you – creates an unspoken and unsatisfying ambiguity that still gnaws at me a month after screening.
Under almost microscopic examination, layered with political allegory, infused with philosophical reflection and the economic, environmental, societal and moral collapse of an arrogant mankind, all encapsulated within a fully-realized world of 650 linear meters, ‘Snowpiercer’ is a riveting ride.
Directed by Bong Joon Ho
Written by Kelly Masterson and Bong Joon Ho based on the graphic novel “Le Transperceneige”
Cast: Chris Evans, Ed Harris, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Song Kang Ho, Ah-sung Ho