Sunday, July 20, 2014

Review: Snowpiercer

Spoiler-free Review:
Dystopias can be a tricky thing. They run a gamut between the outright believable, and thus more chilling settings (Children of Men, The Road), to those exotic and sometimes overly stylish canvasses that serve to showcase a writer's themes (Brazil, 1984, The Handmaid's Tale). Snowpiercer can be firmly placed somewhere on the side of the latter, but that's not a bad thing at all, as there's a hefty amount of substance mixed in with its slick look.

The film is directed by South Korean Joon-ho Bong. While not familiar with Joon-ho Bong's full body of work, I'm a fan of his clever 2006 endeavour, The Host, and encourage any lover of monster movies to check it out. Snowpiercer doesn't spend a great deal of time on the premise or explaining all the details of its setting—a present-day attempt to reverse global warming results in the freezing of the world. A brilliant industrialist with a love of trains has already constructed a luxury locomotive with a self-contained ecosystem that circumnavigates the planet, and that becomes the refuge for humanity's survivors. Jump ahead 17 years and life aboard the train is a rigid caste system with the elites at the front, and the rabble at the tail. A situation ripe for revolution. Yes, Snowpiercer can be heavy-handed in its themes.

Bong assembled an effective and eclectic cast with Chris Evans (Captain America) as hero of the tail section, Curtis, who takes charge of the revolution to seize the front of the train and the eternal engine. Kang-ho Song (The Host) is a former security expert crucial to the uprising. Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin) delivers another memorable performance as Mason, one of the elites charged with keeping everyone in their proper place, with John Hurt as the wizened mentor to Curtis. Octavia Spencer (Community) and Ed Harris also star. It's a great cast that meshes well together, with Evans managing the main role quite effectively.

Snowpiercer looks great. It's beautifully shot, with some memorable vistas of the frozen Earth. While the entire movie takes place on the train, each car presents a new setting, and progressively gets brighter the farther we move from the tail section, beginning in its washed out palette and moving to the vibrancy and technological wonders of the front. 

I was continually reminded of Terry Gilliam's filmmaking style. There are some particularly surreal scenes, a lot of it surrounding the cultlike and messianic adoration of the people for Wilford, the train's creator (the eternal engine is life! Everyone has their place!), and bizarre bits of random humour. It's especially personified by Tilda Swinton's character and actress Alison Pill's over-the-top school teacher performance. But it serves to highlight this isn't a humanity familiar to us. Just enough time has passed to allow us to believe in this self-contained community (and wouldn't some kind of religious zeal be necessary to keep such a microcosm of society in line for so long?).

The dystopic world presented here does need to be taken with a hefty grain of salt. While the global cooling chemical that pushes the Earth into an ice age isn't much beyond the realm of experiments gone awry, the train itself is best enjoyed when not scrutinized too much. It's a closed environment that runs on a perpetual motion machine, and circles the earth once every year. Coincidentally (or not) it becomes the last refuge for a sliver of humanity when the world freezes. It hugs the sides of snowy peaks as it crosses enormous trestle bridges and smashes through fallen ice with relative ease. Yet Bong's sometimes surreal style still kept me grounded in the movie and allowed me to buy in to the premise, unlike the more hard science fiction like Elysium, which, while looking real, left me scratching my head for most of it wondering how such a geo-political future came about.

The train is the perfect metaphor. It's a prison. It's the world. It never stops. It follows the same route year after year. The progression from the back to the front is a progression from darkness into light, ignorance into knowledge. 

Snowpiercer is just as engaging as an action movie alone, and launches into it very quickly, taking the audience along with few breaks in the momentum. And those pauses, when they occur, provide welcome moments to explore some of the history and characters and insights into life aboard the train.

That dichotomy led to an interesting controversy in getting Snowpiercer into the American market, with Harvey Weinstein demanding to cut as much as 20 minutes in order to make for a more action-oriented experience. Or to put it more blatantly, dumbing it down for American audiences. I have a sense what those cuts would have entailed (the aforementioned elementary school scene, and a dramatic insight into Curtis' backstory, two of the larger breaks in the action). But these were essential to the movie, so it would have been severely diminished without them, or any number of others. Fortunately the director won that battle and it's getting its intact release, and judging from box office results could be a sleeper hit in North America.

Snowpiercer kept me guessing as to its ultimate destination. Bong manages to maintain tension throughout in a steady progression through the cars, with each opened door revealing something new and unsettling. While several aspects were predictable, a host of others were not. There is no character too important not to be expendable, and one is never certain they know exactly what is driving the plot. 

Snowpiercer is very blatant in its allegory, but presents plenty of material for post-theatre discussion, and very likely lots to rediscover in rewatching. Bong succeeds in giving the audience a sufficient emotional punch, as I had bought into the fates of everyone, even the more minor characters. Definitely not on the scale of something like Cloud Atlas, but I was reminded a little bit of The Divide by the end of it. While I had no doubts I would enjoy Snowpiercer, I was pleasantly surprised how much I did. It's a film that definitely can find its niche among the less thoughtful summer blockbusters.
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