Monday, November 10, 2014
Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, 2013)
Snowpiercer is a South Korean English-language production based on a French science-fiction graphic novel. The premise—in a post-apocalyptic ice age, the human race survives only aboard a high-speed train that perpetually circuits the globe—is certainly intriguing, but the first thirty minutes are more confusing than compelling. In the tail of the train, we see the lowest caste living in squalid conditions resembling the barracks of a concentration camp. Mistreated by the guards and fed propaganda (along with some unappetizing black protein blocks), the citizens plot a rebellion to take the train, but it’s hard to follow their hushed scheming or even to understand what all is at stake. Having seen only the inhospitable, industrial-looking cars of the back, and not knowing how or whether other sections live much more comfortably, one wonders how well the poor could truly better their lot in a space that is, by its nature, cramped and confined.
Dialogue also comes across stiff and unnatural, especially as delivered by Chris Evans as the rebel leader, Curtis. I can imagine the difficulties that writer-director Bong Joon-ho may have encountered working across language and culture barriers to convey his already offbeat vision. One suspects that Evans never actually understood his character’s motivations, and so didn’t know how to act accordingly, whether as leader, soldier, or proletariat. Classically trained English actor John Hurt, on the other hand, probably never needed to understand any of the lines he was speaking, and he remains always on point as Curtis’s derivative sage mentor. Tilda Swinton, as the mouthpiece for the train’s enigmatic engineer, gives the most memorable performance—a walking, talking political cartoon.
The film takes a dramatic turn for the better, once the rebels commence their operation, and the back three-quarters of Snowpiercer are superb. The ingenuity and precision employed in the first maneuver, as the citizens push forward through armed guards and as many mechanized doors as they can, make for a marvelous sequence. From there, both the revolt and the plot progress from car to car, rather like the levels of a video game, and the film reveals its true nature—insane, over-the-top, endlessly clever, and still somehow moody and contemplative.
Each new section of the train is its own distinct set piece, each offering a different experience within the continually refreshing whole. Some cars host fight sequences, which are nicely varied and brilliantly conceived, given the close quarters in which they had to be staged. Other sections are less action-oriented but serve to fill out the panorama of this appealingly absurd world of the train, while also providing moments for exposition on the history and characters. We see how increasingly decadent life is for those toward the front of the train, as well as all the perverse machinery that keeps the train’s fantastical ecosystem running, never to the benefit of those in the rear, according to the totalitarian vision of the engineer. Even Chris Evans’s apparent blankness in the lead role clarifies into a conflicted aloofness on the character’s part, as he finally and somewhat beautifully (in the film’s typically grotesque manner) tells his incredibly unsettling story, explaining why he knows he is but a hollow hero and not the man his followers perceive him to be.
It takes a while for the movie to pick up steam, and there remain bits of bloat even when it does—the teenage girl’s unexplained clairvoyance, the pudgy bodyguard who randomly becomes the Terminator midway through—but the bulk of the experience is forcefully and invigoratingly unique. Snowpiercer is, by its masterful design, a brutal yet beautiful wreck, from which it is impossible to avert one’s gaze.