‘Snowpiercer’ has been at the center of a dispute between its director and its distributor, Harvey Weinstein (owner of The Weinstein Company). According to reports, Weinstein requested the removal of 20 minutes of footage before he would release the film. The director refused to cut it. I’ve met Harvey Weinstein. He can be really pressing. The director succeeded in keeping the film at the full length, but Weinstein decided to retaliate by relegating the film to a limited release in art house cinemas.
Damn the release controversy. This is why you may not have heard of ‘Snowpiercer’. It is currently on Video on Demand, so you can see it in the comfort of your own home and be blown away. However, it is playing (only) at TIFF Bell Lightbox; if you can make the trek there, I would urge you to do so. This is a movie that deserves to be seen on the big screen.
Based on the French graphic novel ‘La Transperceneige’, ‘Snowpiecer’ is the latest from Bong Joon-ho who gave us ‘Mother’, and ‘The Host’ (not the stupid ‘Host’ with Saoirse Ronan from 2013, I’m talking about the Korean monster flick from 2007). This is his first English film.
The plot: It’s the future. We’re screwed because apparently in an attempt to arrest global warming, we created a new ice age that caused the extinction of all life forms. What is left of humanity is living on a super train that is making its way around the world endlessly on the loop of the track. In the back of the train are huddled masses fed on protein bars, which are comprised of, well, you don’t want to know what is in them. They are kept in line by brute force and repeated reminders of their place on the train. Toward the head of the train, the more fortunate enjoy access to schools, nightclubs, sushi bars, greenhouses, aquariums, saunas, you name it. An unseen, quasi-folkloric entrepreneur is in charge, and a group of rebels decide to challenge his authority and the extreme preferentiality he represents. The plot moves its unwashed, soot-filled grimy characters from the rare section to the progressively pristine cars in the front. If this sounds like a big political metaphor, that is because it is. But, it is all very exciting.
Chris Evans gives a full-on movie star performance. Unrecognizably so as the darkly brooding hero with scruffy facial hair, a heavy coat, and a black wool watch cap. He is effectively subverting the Captain America persona that made him a superstar. There is substance and depth to his character. Tilda Swinton is amazing (as she always is) and almost as unrecognizable as Chris Evans in this with her prosthetic teeth and oversized church-lady glasses. The uniformly excellent international cast also includes Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Song Kang-Ho, Alison Pill, and Ed Harris.
‘Snowpiercer’ is so inspired and full of surprises. It is totally badass; I love this movie. Its structure and socioeconomic political allegory may have you recalling other great cultural works (including some of Terry Gilliam’s post-apocalyptic efforts; non-coincidentally, there is even a character named Gilliam), and not-so-great cultural works (the screenwriters may have taken a page or two out of Ayn Rand, but at least they have improved on it). Regardless, this is no copycat effort by any means. It is wondrous to look at in the most varied, detailed ways.
Opening the doors to each new car provides a multitude of possibilities, with Marcos Beltrami’s solid score underneath it (without stepping out of line). Each represents a beautifully detailed, self-contained world. Each is a marvel in production design and art direction.
The script appears to be structured around the layout of the train. Each successive compartment has its own function and introduces another piece of the story. It makes for a fluid, fully captivating narrative. The luxurious forward section of the train remains unseen until the sixty-three minute mark (the exact midpoint of the film). And even though this section offers all the tangible benefits of upper class living, an inescapable sense of dread coils underneath.
On the outset, the idea of watching insurgents march through to the engine of an unstoppable train would appear as though the film would have to operate within the parameters of its visual and dramatic limitations. However, Bong Joon-ho is a playful and rigorous visual thinker. This is an unsettlingly stylish movie and an intelligent one. The premise is a big metaphor, yes, but it is an interesting and relevant one. I take no issues with an action picture that uses its genre tropes to engage our minds with consequential topics.
Despite its confined spaces, Bong also comes up with a number of inventively staged action sequences, the best of which is a first-person view of a pitched battle as seen through night-vision goggles as the train enters a long, dark tunnel. The camera is nimble, the editing quick.
‘Snowpiercer’ does function as a representation of our recognizable world, and it does provide some level of realism in terms of what happens in each of the cars, and their raison d’etre in order for the entire system to maintain a sense of equilibrium.
Bong Joon-ho does dazzling things with lighting not only to distinguish these sub-universes but also between the indoor and outdoor worlds and between light and dark. As the film’s heroes move forward, there is a gradual palette shift from the bleak, monochromatic, grimy, and textured to the lush, and chromatic. The more luxurious cars contain windows providing their inhabitants with a glimpse of the spectacularly snowed-in world around them. A lot of care went into crafting such a fully realized world.
The film’s black humor is punctuated with shocking bloody violence, the unfortunate long-running currency of humanity in extremis. Other moments are electrifying because they are so surreal – an uneasy confrontation or a classroom in which you see a teacher with an unexpected lesson plan. The control in the shifts of mood (within its train compartment-like structure) is astounding. The ending, which I won’t spoil beyond my reaction, is not conventionally satisfying (I suspect many will have an immediate “Huh?” reaction) but I liked the integrity of it. I viewed it as a combination of triumph and personal trepidation. Some may see it as hopeful. Others may see it as misanthropic. Can’t it be both?
Even though the movie is very much a 21st century product in its hodgepodge of various styles, moods, and genres, there is something refreshingly old-fashioned about the way it tells its story and it’s adventurous exploration of human nature contained therein. This is a terrific, unforgettably bizarre, thrilling action parable. If you’re in the mood for allegory, see it. If you want a summer action movie that isn’t a “summer action movie”, see it. The sort of destruction and mayhem associated with big summer blockbusters are resituated inside a steel can. It’s not about comic book characters even if it stars Captain America. QED.