Anticipation can be a killer. I looked forward to Snowpiercer for so long–and that long in part because of a battle between Harvey Weinstein and Bong Joon-ho over which cut to release in North America–that I was quite reasonably afraid that the end result would be a letdown. And while my first viewing was most enjoyable, I eagerly saw it again when the opportunity arose, to make sure of my feelings. I needn’t have worried.
On July 1¹, 2014, 79 countries attempt to counteract global warming by dispersing an agent, CW7, into the upper atmosphere. As a result, the Earth’s temperatures plummeted so low that all life on Earth was apparently destroyed, except for those who boarded “the rattling ark”, a train called Snowpiercer, which uses a perpetual-energy engine to traverse the globe, making a circuit once a year. The train has a very distinct class system, with the poor sequestered in the rear car and the rich taking up most of the front half of the train. The mysterious, godlike inventor of the train, Wilford (Ed Harris), lives at the front.
In 2031, the situation in the rear is critical: any kind of rebellion is harshly punished; Andrew (Ewan Bremner) has his arm forced out into the cold and shattered for striking a higher-up, in response to the removal of his son. Curtis (Chris Evans), has been plotting a fresh uprising (there have been others before, all unsuccessful) with the intention of destroying Wilford and installing his mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) as the new leader. He is prompted partly by cryptic messages he receives in bullets, hidden inside the gelatinous protein bars the tail section must subside on. Gilliam, along with Edgar (Jamie Bell), believes that Curtis should be the leader; Gilliam is old and haggard, “a shadow of my former shadow”.
An offhand remark by Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) leads Curtis to suspect that the guards have no bullets in their guns–and that there are no bullets left on the train, or on Earth–and Curtis decides to begin the rebellion, his suspicions being proved correct. As the rebels march forward, they free Namgoong (“Nam”) Minsu (Song Kang-ho), the technician who designed the train’s security system, from prison. He agrees to help them advance on two conditions: that they provide him with a steady stream of Kronole, a addictive hallucinogenic made from industrial waste (which is also highly flammable), and that they free his daughter, Yona (Ko Ah-sung), a fellow addict who also seems to be somewhat clairvoyant.
The revolt progresses, and despite heavy losses after a battle in the dark against Wilford’s night-vision-equipped soldiers, the rebels capture Mason and take her prisoner; she tells them she will lead them to Wilford on two conditions: that they spare her life and kill Wilford (despite her claims to his greatness and benevolence). As they go on, the bodies mount, the revelations continue, and the question looms: just what will happen once the engine is reached?
That’s actually quite a simplified synopsis, not just because I don’t want to give away the various twists and turns of the story, but because the film is so tightly packed that there’s a number of major events and characters I haven’t even touched on. That said, the film doesn’t burden you with a convoluted cosmogony (cough, cough), and is quite digestible. It’s just better seen than summarized.
If you’ve heard of Snowpiercer, doubtless you’ve heard about its troubled path towards a North American release. As I mentioned in the intro, Harvey Weinstein and Bong Joon-ho clashed over the final cut of the film; Weinstein, according to Wikipedia, wanted to cut 20 minutes and add expositional voiceovers at the beginning and end. The density of the film’s narrative makes me wonder where 5 minutes, let alone 20, could be removed; maybe some of the expositional moments would’ve been trimmed, but I fear that the third act, which favors dialogue over action, would’ve been altered, playing up the thrills at the expense of the drama Bong so carefully crafts. An opening voiceover might’ve cleared up a couple of logistical points, but it would’ve been unnecessary; a closing voiceover would’ve outright ruined the quiet, ambiguous ending, which might not be considered a bang but which, in its own way, works quite well.
In any case, thank God that Bong prevailed, even if it meant the film would not be so widely released–at least initially (let’s hope the film continues to do well and command further expansion). Because as it is, Snowpiercer is quite marvelous. It’s the kind of film that once upon a time would’ve had a dedicated cult; now they’re called “fandoms”, and Tumblr should be teeming with GIFs and photosets and fan art for months to come. And yet, it’s also the sort of film which, I’m convinced, most action fans would embrace if they gave it a chance. There are action sequences here as good as any I’ve seen in years, and they’re all the more thrilling because you genuinely care what’s going on–not just about what’s happening, but why.
The best is doubtless the observation-car battle. The doors open to reveal a crowd of masked soldiers armed with axes; a large fish is produced and cut open, whereupon the soldiers wet their axes with its blood. Why? Some obscure ritual? Or a bit of psychological warfare? Or just a bit of absurdism on the part of the director? I’m not sure. The fight begins, and it’s really brutal. Few actual blows are shown, but the fierceness of the combat–Curtis really goes HAM here–is quite efficiently communicated. Then, Mason shows up, bringing a halt to the combat, and announces that the train is passing over the Yekaterina Bridge, marking the 18th anniversary of the Snowpiercer’s voyage. After a New Year’s chant, Mason reveals that the train is about to enter a tunnel, and the rebels will be fighting blind in the dark, while the soldiers put on their night-vision goggles. A weapon is thrown at Mason (but blocked), and she remarks:
My friend, you suffer from the misplaced optimism of the doomed. Precisely 74% of you are going to die. This is going to be good.
And so it continues, and I dare not give away any more. Suffice to say, it’s a truly ingenious battle, painfully brutal yet viscerally exciting.
The visceral brutality of the film is indeed established almost at the beginning, as the thuggish soldiers who deal with the tail-section passengers beat an old woman because her husband, a former violinist, refuses to leave and perform for the upper classes without her. And when the children are removed and their parents beaten for resisting (as Tanya (Octavia Spencer) is when she tries to protect her son Timmy (Marcanthonee Reis)), the connection with the violence in our daily lives is unsettlingly established. While the film vacillates between relatability and exaggeration (as I’ll get to in a bit), the almost oppressive inhumanity of the situation is continually evoked.
This is done not only in little moments (like when Curtis forces Mason to eat one of the protein bars while the others eat sushi), but in whole characters, like the horrific Franco the Elder (Vlad Ivanov), an enforcer for Wilford who literally has to be told by the soldiers to refrain from shooting until they can open the train doors for him. He’s well-nigh indestructible, surviving stabbings and stranglings until quite late in the film, and his merciless viciousness is truly unsettling. Not that our heroes are the most pleasant bunch either (Curtis is quite willing to do what needs to be done), but the feeling of a system that is happy to crush you is continually evoked; I suspect that Bong, a South Korean, intended comparisons with the North to be drawn. (The film has been a huge success in Korea, making almost $60 million.)
And yet, as brutal as the film can be, it does not lack for character or humor. The former I’ll mention shortly, the latter manifests itself in many varied ways. First and foremost, the humor comes in the form of the repulsive Mason. Swinton has an absolute ball here, nearly unrecognizable beneath the copious makeup (which is superbly executed throughout), coming off almost like a campier version of Mrs. Tweedy from Chicken Run (they have similar voices). Mason begins with a venomous monologue, delivered as poor Andrew’s arm is freezing solid, ordering the tail-sectioners to keep their place, likening them to the shoe Andrew used as a weapon, mockingly balancing it on his head, saying that when a thing is not in its proper place, chaos ensues. (Later, once Mason is taken hostage, Andrew gleefully places the shoe on her head.) Mason’s credo is “So it is”, reflecting her rigid, religious devotion to Wilford’s will.
Once Mason is taken hostage, the humor of her character comes out ever more clearly; she desperately bargains with Curtis to spare her life, smiling the slimiest of smiles as she tries to prove her compliance; at one point, she removes her (false) upper teeth–like the fish-axe moment, the precise meaning of the action is ambiguous, but it adds greatly to the film’s flavor. And later, when caught red-handed turning a weapon on the rebels, she cries “It wasn’t me!” on being disarmed, and tries to reason with Curtis, calling him “My friend”–a sentiment which is hardly reciprocated. Oh, and remember her gloating wickedness right before the tunnel battle? Yes, Swinton really devours the scenery here, and it’s a constant joy to watch. I wish she were in the film a little more, but her exit is decidedly appropriate.
But the schoolhouse sequence takes things to a whole different level. Presumably education for the children of the upper classes, the teacher (Alison Pill) indoctrinates the children in Wilford-worship, replete with chants, ritualistic gestures, and songs; Pill’s rapturous, eye-twitching rendition of the song is certainly one of the film’s highlights (though, as with the rest of the sequence, it comes awfully close to goofiness; I feel like North Korean leader-worship was the target of the satire here). It’s hard to describe just how WTF the scene really is, but it’s certainly one you’ll be quoting if the picture works for you (“We ALL freeze and DIE!”). Oh, and there’s an obnoxious little girl who spouts classist rhetoric; there’s a very satisfying little moment where Tanya cracks an egg on her head.
Tanya, indeed, provides much of the film’s humor as well as a great deal of its emotional depth; her no-nonsense attitude and sarcastic sense of humor are well-played by Spencer, as are her moments with and regarding her son. It’s not the first time Spencer has played such a role (it’s not so different from her work in The Help), but she always does it well.
As for the film”s sense of character, it is perhaps best exemplified by Song Kang-ho’s low-key performance as Nam, which in its subdued way is very nearly as good as Swinton’s campiness. Though Nam definitely has his streak of sardonic humor (driven in part by his disdainful attitude towards the tail-sectioners), he also genuinely loves his daughter and hopes for an escape from the train–why, he reveals in a fine monologue near the end. A veteran of Bong’s films, Song manages to hold his own in the mostly Anglophone cast, exemplifying a kind of quiet, tenacious strength, mitigated only a little (and perhaps not at all) by his drug addiction. There’s always something more to Nam than you expect, and Song makes a quietly fascinating individual. There’s some fine business where Nam pulls out a cigarette (tobacco is believed to be long extinct) and sm0kes it in front of an eager crowd. He flippantly tosses it aside, resulting in a scramble. Later, in the lengthy two-header scene between him and Curtis, he gives Curtis his last cigarette–the last on Earth–and suggests it is wasted on a “tail-section prick” like him. Curtis responds to this (more on that in a second), and Nam’s response shows the depth of the character and the complexity of Song’s portrayal; because he never does quite what you expect, he feels all the more real.
Chris Evans has received a great deal of praise for his work here, and he does do a good job; as a leader and a fighter for his people, he’s rock-solid. Evans does falter a touch in his “big moment”, a monologue recounting the horrors of the early days of the tail section. Possibly meant as an homage to the Indianapolis monologue in Jaws, Evans oversells it just a little, going from zero to tears a little too quickly for comfort. He’s better in a later moment when, beholding the engine, he collapses in exhausted recognition of the dilemma he faces. But he really shines as a man of action, and the scenes where he really dishes out the violence are quite startling; Captain America this is not, though both characters are similarly righteous. In any case, he’s a most appropriate foundation on which the madness of the film rests.
Ko Ah-sung’s work as Yona is also quite strong, bringing to life a certain wide-eyed wonderment (fueled, no doubt, by the Kronole), while still maintaining Yona’s good-natured, spacey humanity. It’s a hard performance to describe the appeal of, but suffice to say she’s very good, and totally believable. So is Jamie Bell, whom I felt was a touch irritating at first, but who’s ultimately believable as a young agitator; so is John Hurt, who doesn’t stand out quite as much as I had anticipated, but who fits into the ragged-old-mentor role with ease. I should also mention Luke Pasqualino’s Grey, one of Curtis’ best fighters, who meets with a tragic end in a moment of low-key brutality. He’s a fine presence. Oh, and Clark Middleton’s eccentric Painter, who captures people and moments in charcoal sketches (executed by the artist of the graphic novel the film is based on), adds to the film’s world quite agreeably. Really, it’s a very fine ensemble.
That just leaves Ed Harris’ Wilford. I can’t say too much about him without giving away a lot of the third act, but Harris is spot-on here, smooth and affably manipulative, not too much hiding Wilford’s pragmatic ruthlessness. It falls to him to deliver a number of revelations (some more believable than others), but ultimately, he justifies Gilliam’s insistence that Curtis not let him talk, but “cut out his tongue”; Wilford is quite noxious in his way, and Harris plays it just right. There’s a great deal of build-up to his appearance, and Harris makes it pay off, down to his last muttered aside, a real gem of a moment.
I’ve never read Le Transperceneige², the film’s source material, but what information I’ve found out about suggests that Bong and his co-writer Kelly Masterson did not create an exact transcription of it (Bong is also credited with the screen story). I also haven’t seen any of Bong’s other films (Mother, The Host, and Memories of Murder are those I’d most like to see), so I cannot definitely say who deserves the credit for the film’s story or its style. In any case, the script, while not the film’s greatest strength, is in its own right quite strong, a lean, forceful script which does not waste time, but even in its less driven moments (the schoolhouse scene, for one) continually builds its atmosphere and themes. There’s humor, but not comic relief; emotional bonds, but no tacked-on romance. The dialogue is generally quite satisfactory, and if there are any notably weak or overly expositional lines, I don’t recall them after two viewings.
Are there gaps in the logic of the script? To a degree. The logistics of the train’s inception are left mostly unexplained, or indeed how the train happened to acquire the passengers it did. While it’s reasonable to assume that the film does not depict every car of the train (in the novel, I believe the train is 1,000 cars long), one still wonders just how the train can sustain, say, the raising of cattle (sides of beef are seen; Wilford eats steak), or the production of alcoholic beverages. I’m not complaining too much–further exposition would have not added greatly to the film’s dramatic power–but certainly some might find the omissions problematic. And that’s not even mentioning the ending, which one could call optimistic, but which poses plenty of questions–but these would have been answered by Weinstein’s proposed voiceovers, and that, as I’ve said, would have ruined the mood.
I noted immediately after my first viewing (and I believe others have echoed this sentiment) that the film owes a debt to Bioshock, or is it at least reminiscent of it. Certainly Wilford is not unlike Andrew Ryan, and the video shown to the schoolchildren (a propagandistic portrayal of Wilford’s career) reminds me of Ryan’s monologue recounting the inspiration for Rapture. The violence, the humor, and the atmosphere of the film all remind one, at least faintly, of the game, and while I’m not sure if Bong at all intended this, it makes for an interesting point of comparison. The film doesn’t suffer for it–I’ve said it’s as good as any Bioshock film could hope to be–and if anything, this should serve to bring more viewers to it.
And what of the film as a political allegory? I’m no political thinker, but the IMDb boards are buzzing with political debates as to whether the film is propaganda–and if so, for which cause, which side? As allegories go, it’s not the most profound I’ve seen, but it has its talking points. At the very least, it’s a portrayal of the persistence of the class system and of the desire for “balance” and “order”, of the idea of balance and order as absolute goods, more so than equality. Mason tells the tail-sectioners to “Know your place. Keep your place”, while Curtis, when Wilford espouses similar sentiments, notes, “That’s something people in a good place tell people in a bad place.”³ Certainly it has the potential to incite debate, and at the very least, post-screening discussion–such was the case both times I saw.
I really must mention again how the film chooses, in its third act, to dial down the action and let conversation and debate propel the drama. Not that there’s no action in this part of the film, but there’s a definite emphasis on words here, and it’s greatly to the credit of Bong and Masterson that the film does not run of steam here, but has built up its dramatic foundation so well that what the characters have to say actually matters. Credit also must go to Evans, Song, and Harris, all of whom invest these dialogues with sincerity and strength.
The film rarely stops looking good, thanks to Hong Kyung-pyo’s cinematography. The use of light is often extraordinary, not just in the tunnel battle (which, again, is truly jaw-dropping), but in the shadowy close-ups of Curtis’ face as he strides toward Wilford, or in the sauna car sequence, or even in the sterile glare of the engine. There’s some fine composition; one shot near the end, which I wish the film had held a moment longer, shows two men collapsed, one seemingly in resignation, the other in contemplation. Other times the shots are merely good, but there’s some real atmosphere on display here.
The all-important production design (by Ondrej Nekvasil) brings to life the squalor of the tail section, the utilitarian grimness of the industrial cars, and the potted opulence of the upper classes. It’s a damned good job all around, with settings that are beautiful (the aquarium car), eerie (the sauna car, lit by sickly yellow light), and ultimately quite believable. Perhaps a touch more variety in the details would have helped, but that’s nitpicking. Certainly there’s never been a cinematic train like this. And the costumes (by Catherine George) also enhance the world of the film; the tail-sectioners are, of course, swaddled in rags, while Mason’s pantsuits and skirt suits are almost a parody of modern business wear. And the makeup (headed by Jeremy Woodhead) creates a world of grime and blood to great effect.
Steve M. Choe and Changju Kim’s editing mostly enhances the film’s forward momentum, which at its best (the moments of purposeful strides and remorseless action) is truly thrilling. There are a couple of odd uses of dissolves which are distracting, but the pace and the skillful cross-cutting seen throughout add up to a fine piece of work. The visual effects are a bit variable–one sequence showing a frozen city looks a little fake–but apart from this, I had absolutely no complaints. Need I say anything about the superb sound mixing or sound effects–the shots, the body blows, the rumbling of the train, etc.? As a technical achievement, Snowpiercer is generally superior.
How can I not recommend Snowpiercer? At worst I would say its violence will disturb some, but it is not a film that revels in gore for gore’s sake. It’s an entertaining film, but it’s also a moving film, and it’s also, in its own way, a thought-provoking one. It’s the sort of film which will inspire great devotion, the sort of film I wanted very much to like and did. I have cited the strength of the direction, of the acting, the writing, and the visuals. I have not mentioned Marco Beltrami’s score; it’s good. It’s not incredible–great scores have been in kind of short supply this year–but it’s no slouch. If there are minor lapses in the film at times (and yes, there are), do I err as a critic to say they are forgivable? I forgive them.
It seems odd to give this film as low a score as I give it, given that I’ve expended (as of these words) 3,700 words in the positive appraisal of it. But I can’t totally ignore its weaknesses. I toyed with going a point higher, and may at a later point, but I do not want my objective judgment to be too much clouded by my subjective enthusiasm. Either way, it’s a **** film–I have no qualms about branding it as such. If you have the opportunity to see Snowpiercer, do so. We are lucky to have it as its director intended. Let us not waste our good fortune.
So it is.
¹I think the voiceover says “First”, but it’s not totally clear. It might be “Third”. Either way, the apocalypse happened last week, and how am I writing this?
²By Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette.
³This is a bit of a paraphrase; I don’t recall the exact wording of the line.