I heard a lot of good things about ‘Snowpiercer’ so I decided to check it out. The international, star-studded cast was also a bit of a draw. In short, the film had an interesting premise, could have gone a tad faster considering it was a director’s cut, and reminded me of Bong Joon Ho’s previous film ‘The Host’ in some ways.
‘Snowpiercer’ is set in the not-so-distant future when countries’ failed attempts at resolving global warming leads to the world being frozen over. The only survivors on earth are the ones who managed to board the Snowpiercer, a train that circles around the globe every year. It’s a train that never stops and is completely self-sufficient. Initially meant for the rich, some “lower folk” manage to get on the tail end of the car and what results is a very divisive class hierarchy that pits the front of the train with the tail end.
Our hero is Curtis (Chris Evans), who, with his ragtag team of ‘tailies’, tries to take over the engine at the front of the car. If he has control of the engine then he can save his people from being mercilessly persecuted. After much preparation an opportunity arises where Curtis and his second in command Edgar (Jamie Bell) manage to break through several cars. They reach the ‘prison’ of sorts where Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang Ho) is being held. Minsu is the one who built all the security doors on the train that separates each car from one another, and he’s vital to Curtis’ plan in overtaking the train. Minsu will only help if he gets his daughter, Yona (Go Ah Sung), to come along as well as two Kronol tablets, a drug that he and the rich are addicted to.
It’s quite the journey of discovery (both inner and outer) as we travel in a straight line between cars of the train and go up against Mason (an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton) and eventually the creator of Snowpiercer, Wilford (Ed Harris). In terms of ‘outer discovery’ it’s sometimes impossible to believe that you’d have an aquarium or a greenhouse in a train car. As for ‘inner discovery’ Curtis and Minsu must overcome each enemy in each car either psychologically or physically.
A sequence where the tailies must go up against masked armed men in complete darkness is reminiscent of Park Chan Wook‘s inspiring ‘Oldboy’ scene, and relies on Curtis’ quick strategic thinking. Meanwhile he must make heartbreaking sacrifices for his cause and it tests his inner strength to keep going. What’s great is that with each battle scene and with each sacrifice, the film is punctuated with moments of humor due to the ridiculousness of the situation.
While Chris Evans was a great character to follow as our protagonist I think he was supported by an even better cast of characters that really made the film interesting. Jamie Bell as Edgar was so winning that I really felt for his character and the suffering he had to endure. His earnestness came off more endearing than annoying. Though Tilda Swinton was technically a villain I found myself sympathizing and liking Mason because of his brusque manner and his pathetic personality. And yes, it’s amazing that Tilda Swinton played a man and yet didn’t try so hard in being super masculine. In fact, I continually forgot that Mason was supposed to be a man until someone addressed Swinton as ‘Sir.’ Mason was both frivolous and cold, but it was far less disturbing than Allison Pill’s bright and cheery Teacher.
Sad to say but Octavia Spencer’s character was not as memorable as the other father Andrew, played by Ewen Bremner, who gave a really memorable performance on how to lose an arm in the most tragic and painful way possible. And I really liked that Go Ah Sung learned her lines in English because I think it really helped underscore the multiple nationalities on the train. Go Ah Sung’s Yona supposedly was born on the train, so it’s natural that she should learn both the predominant language on the train and her native language to speak with her father. It’s also really funny to see her say, ‘You’re fucked,’ in a super nonchalant way as she translates her father’s words for Curtis.
On the other hand, having Song Kang Ho speak entirely in Korean was both humorous and metaphorically important. It was hilarious hearing him curse out Curtis and then have their translating device not recognize any of his words. But it was also important because it showed that his ability to convey his thoughts on how to survive could transcend any language. Even without the translating device he got his thoughts through to Curtis because ‘how to survive’ is the common language for all the tailies. But sometimes I did wonder why Song Kang Ho couldn’t just learn some lines in English. Would have been nice.
The whole film was rife with metaphors about social classes, references to brainwashing a la 1984, social commentary on child labor and population control, and even a plot twist that wasn’t very surprising but not at all unsatisfying. It wasn’t so much the blatant metaphors or the plot twist that kept me watching, but rather wondering how Curtis was going to survive the next hurdle. And we even take an interesting leap backwards when we learn of Curtis’s hurdles when surviving the first years in the tail end. It helped explain why the tailies were fighting so hard to survive, and it made Minsu’s final revelation that much more important. Once we got over that baggage Curtis bore, we could then move on to his next problem: Wilford. Except for the overbearing metaphors I appreciated the wit and humor in the script, and how it dropped enough hints and lines to help make the plot twist pay off.
It’s an ambitious film, and I applaud the effort that Bong Joon Ho made. It was similar to ‘The Host’ for me in that there was a strong start and a strong middle, but it didn’t keep up the momentum to reach the explosive finale. It’s great that Bong was able to release the film that he wanted to present, and to share his vision and own cinematic expertise to an audience that is largely unfamiliar with him. I love how Bong can balance two totally different tones so masterfully; A great example is when he has Curtis slip on a fish in the middle of the fight scene. Nevertheless, I think approximately ten minutes could have been cut from the film because we got lingering shots that didn’t result in some later payoff or an explanation. I’m okay with a slow pace if this were more of an art house film, but ‘Snowpiercer’ is, from the start, an action flick and so it needs to be paced more quickly. Once I am given a piece of information onscreen, move on; Don’t keep the shot there for so long that I start questioning and wondering things that aren’t even important to the story.
Maybe Bong wants us to wonder if there’s an unspoken connection between the characters or to think about the meaning of life, death, and revenge with those extra seconds. But when so many metaphors are thrown at the audience already, how much more important is this “connection”? I believe that if something doesn’t really add to the film, and that the story or the character is fine without this detail, then don’t bother adding it. It’s more of an editing choice, I feel, rather than a writing choice.
But of course, my filmmaking philosophy is not his filmmaking philosophy. For what he’s done, it’s great. But I will say that I ended up being a little underwhelmed by the film as a whole.