Directed by: Joon-ho Bong
Starring: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Ed Harris, John Hurt, and Ewan Bremner
The Plot: In an effort to solve global warming mankind accidentally unleashes the seed of their extinction. All life on Earth has been put into a deep freeze save one group of people who find salvation aboard a train looping a one year course across the icy wastelands of their long dead world. Not everything aboard this “Snowpiercer” is completely kosher. The passenger roster has been divided into two groups: The haves and the have-nots. One enjoying a life of plump luxury in the front cars of the train while the others live in a police state in the back. The stench of rebellion is thick.
The Film: Spinal Tap’s David St. Hubbins famously said: It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever. Snowpiercer crosses that line repeatedly – blurring it beyond definition – as it races down its lunatic course with wild, chilly abandon. Never caring if its viewer is up for buying everything this ride has to offer.
For this alone we must give this new film from Joon-ho Bong credit. Western filmmakers may back the throttle off when it comes to doling out carnage and distended plotting with their social satire – the infanticide, forced cannibalism, hatchet-wielding military, and ritual appendage amputation feel distinctly Eastern – but Joon-ho’s movie never blinks as it plunders its mad premise for every last ounce of blood, sweat, and hysteria.
Essentially what we are watching is the culmination of a township rebellion. Life on Earth has been narrowed down to a single population of people, trekking the frozen wastelands of Earth on a lone, indomitable locomotive with a perpetual energy engine. The creator of the engine is, to the passengers, THE CREATOR. The man behind the curtain. Oz the great and powerful. Who you are in life on board the train, and what your future may hold, is literally, what ticket you ended up with when you first arrived to catch it. First class passengers ride in luxury and style. They have schools. They have swimming pools. They eat extremely well – even enjoying sushi once every year. The passengers in coach live in barracks and subsist on “Protein Bars” only. Brown bricks of jelly coagulated from crushed insects. They live in squalor and rage against their betters in the front – only because they seek the same lavish lifestyle they’ve learned to hate over seventeen years of gulag living.
A point illustrated in the opening scene of the movie where the well-heeled Morlocks from first class require a violinist for one of their parties. An elderly couple step forward, the old man claiming he played violin for the Boston symphony. The armed militia grab him, and when he begs for them to take his wife along as well, they jam a rifle butt into her face, crushing her nose and knocking her to the floor. Then they drag him out of coach class for his new assignment serenading the well-to-dos at the front of the train. Later in the movie when we see the musician outfitted in a new tuxedo and playing music he seems perfectly fine with the upgrade to first class.
His concern for his loving wife, now waiting in line for cold bug-bars with a busted nose and glazed look in her eyes, seems to be a non-issue.
Joon-ho is almost certainly a fan of filmmakers like Fritz Lang and Terry Gilliam – or at least their ability to inject stout doses of loony into their movies. The community organizer in Snowpiercer (played by John Hurt – still using perpetual carcinogenic emphysema as a trusty performance enhancing affliction) is named “Gilliam” of all things. Tilda Swinton’s Mason is a Gilliam caricature – and a pretty gawdamn great one. Her simplistic interpretation of the train’s societal structure is one of the biggest highlights of the film. In one memorable scene in Snowpiercer she tells the rebels that, like an elephant, the water comes through the trunk – or the front of the train – and that they exist in the elephant’s bum.
She’s being completely serious of course. How else are you supposed to remind your lessers of their station in life without pointing out that it is their assigned duty to make do living in the ass of the beast?
Snowpiercer attempts to make something of a point on the indelicacy of caste systems and the delicacy of ecosystems, and though we may wonder where the cattle ranches and chicken hatcheries are on board the train supplying all the meat and eggs for our voyage – not to mention vineyards and tobacco plantations – the world of Snowpiercer is much more palatable when taken with tiny drops of skepticism and bucketfuls of healthy indifference toward reality.
It is a mad idea to begin with – on a collision course with even more madness, only stuttering and stumbling where a lot of contemporary Asian genre movies stutter and stumble. The strength of the film is based in its lunacy. And indeed things chug along nicely when the violence and reasons for violence are left up to our imagination and suspension of belief. But Joon-ho Bong succumbs to the need to compartmentalize the absurd – to give reason to the unreasonable. The final act is mired in needless exposition about the previous, bloody events of the movie, in a desperate attempt to give the violence purpose when it worked so much better as applaudable acts of retribution from animals kept in cages too small, and too unaccommodating, for far too long.
The Verdict: Snowpiercer belongs in the somnambulist’s beat of 2AM in the morning. Where the discriminating mind is forced into recession, and cerebral hypoxia causes the thought centers to merge between the waking world and the world of dreams. The hours where Art Bell’s Coast To Coast radio circus and infomercials compete for the affections of the mad, lonely, and sleep-deprived damned. Where a zapped sofa-cowboy might stumble onto something like David Schmoeller’s Tourist Trap, or Cosmatos’s Beyond the Black Rainbow, on late night cable and wonder – quite consciously – if what he is seeing is real or imagined. And if imagined… by whom? Snowpiercer is just that very thing. It’s a wild idea that works wonders when it’s let off its leash, and works less well when it flirts with being taken seriously.