Director: Bong Joon-ho
Cast: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Go Ah-sung, Octavia Spencer, Luke Pasqualino, Ewen Bremmer, Vlad Ivanov with John Hurt and Ed Harris
Plot: The remnants of society after the planet is turned to inhabitable ice are trapped in a train. The lower class, tired of their status, rise up and rebel against the upper class, who reside at the front of the train.
You can tell that, somewhere, there was a Korean making Snowpiercer. Korean cinema is probably best known this side of the world from Oldboy, one of the most intriguing thrillers I have had the pleasure of watching. Like Oldboy, Snowpiercer throws most of the rules of the usual Hollywood blockbuster and goes about constructing a story that doesn’t need to apply to any form of usual story-telling. The hero has a dark past (when you find out about the specific details on the past, that phrase doesn’t seem like a cliche anymore), any major cast member could be killed off at any moment and the tone jumps from darkly serious to blackly comic in the blink of an eye.
In fact, the comedy is my one sour point when it comes to Snowpiercer. A lot of it just doesn’t work. There are a handful of scenes in Snowpiercer that aims at this surreal form of joke-telling. One scene with a minature school carriage on the train is the best example to showcase this side of the joke-telling, but other choice moments include the rebellion pausing for a quick bite to eat a sushi bar and a fight scene pausing, so the good guys and the bad guys can wish each other a Happy New Year. Snowpiercer works really hard ot build this gritty, unique Sci-Fi universe and pretty much knocks itself back to square one with a few awkwardly-timed jokes. The same goes for Tilda Swinton’s lieutenant character. Thank god, Tilda Swinton fills this role, because you cannot help but think that it could have gone pretty wrong if someone less talented tried their hand at the character. With a Yorkshire accent straight from a ‘big-for-their-boots’ primary school teacher and a weasley personality (one moment sees her pluck her false teeth out from her mouth for pretty much no reason that to back up how weird she looks), you will either love or hate the character. My opinion veered back and forth, probably only staying on the bearable side, because Swinton makes it work with the little movements. This weird balance between comedy and dark drama makes it really hard to figure out what I was meant to be feeling, or even experiencing, for the first half of the movie. I was all on board for the grim, gritty reality of the social debate crammed into an intense claustrophobic setting. Sure, it is dark – perhaps too dark, seeing as the ending explores some murky waters – but at least it feels like something that this movie should be. Throwing in the humour suggests that Joon-ho, the director, doesn’t know what he is doing, which is definitely not the case. The cinematography is excellent (sometimes the camera lets us see the entriety of a crowd, spanning a few carriages and the swaying movement brings the setting to life amazingly), and in terms of story-telling, Snowpiercer is an unpredictable thrill ride. If only it would stop shooting itself in the foot every two seconds…
But let’s sweep that sour note under the rug and focus on the good. And there really is a lot of good with his movie. If you can get past the silly premise, we end up with a pretty interesting Sci-Fi world to explore. Sci-Fi’s main problem these days is that there aren’t enough new ideas in the pot (should we do time travel or renegade robot this week, folks?). This is why new blood entering the scene, this being Joon-ho’s first English-speaking movie, is a benefit to cinema. Snowpiercer gives us something different and it is interesting taking this world and exploring it for a while. What are the rules here? How has society adapted? Of course, much of this movie is pretty much a social debate, arguing that the class system is horrifically backwards. The god-like head of the train treats civilisation like a well-oiled machine, drawing comparaisons to people and the inner machinations of his beloved Snowpiercer. Every cog or person has their part and place in the world and he is just the man who oversees everyone stays where they are. When the ending of the movie finally introduces us to the character, he is an interesting villain, totally unaware that he is in the wrong, believing with every inch of his heart, that he is doing the right thing. He greets Chris Evans’ angry hero with a warm smile and handshake, as if he is totally unaware that he is the bad guy in this story. As he calmly explains that even rebellions are a calculated part of humanity’s destiny, he is totally forgetting about the humanity of being an actual person and not a working machine. This is a neat allegory about the high class businessmen and politicians of the world forgetting what the lower classes have to go through on a day-by-day basis as they run the country. If it wasn’t for a last minute, stomach-turning twist, you might even think that Ed Harris’ softly-spoken antagonist has a point. Or maybe Snowpiercer’s point is that there is a lack of communication between the social classes? The villain treats the lower classes poorly, because there is not enough food to be consumed (in his mind, at least – carriages full with clubbing and over-consumation hurt both his point and perhaps real life world leaders). However, the lower classes aren’t told this, merely stuffed into a small carriage and told that this is how they are meant to live. Of course, they rebel, because as far as they are concerned, the higher class (who are arguably just as ignorant as the lowe classes), are just faceless monsters to them. We are just as clueless about what each carriage further along the train will hold as the actual lead heroes. The social classes, in both this movie and real life, are an entire train apart. This is a neat allegory and is enough to make me forgive all of the plot holes in the movie (pointed out excellently by Hard Ticket to Home Video here).
But the real reason I love this movie is not the bigger meanings, but just the nature of the storytelling. I love how unconventional Joon-ho approaches his characters. Chris Evans is given a lot more to do with this hero than he has been with the likes of Captain America and Fantastic Four. He is asked to step up his acting game, and Evans not only handles the task extremely well, but seems grateful to actually be able to handle a movie of this depth. My estimations have got up a lot for the actor. The other two heroes with odd backgrounds are Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung. They are the Koreans, a few carriages up from the bottom of the train, who have the power to hack through the doors seperating the classes. The catch is that they are junkies, in the worst way. They do not share the other good guys’ desire for a better world or a sense of righteousness. They are here only because for every door they open, they get a chunk of rock that acts as a futuristic drug. It puts the rebellion in this precarious position, where they are relying on two really unfaithful people for their entire plan to work. However, rather than putting them as side characters, Joon-ho gives them a lot to do, so we end up liking them, even if we don’t really feel like trusting them 100%. This is especially powerful as Go Ah-sung plays what we would assume is the female love interest of the story, but she is such a hollow shell of addict that our expectations are all over the place with the character. At one moment, she is charming and the next she has decided to abandon the journey, because they have reached the clubbing carriage and she has just discovered wine for the first time. Every stage of this movie could throw the entire plot up in the air and that is the factor that keeps you hooked. I also love how characters could be killed off with little emphasis. Joon-ho builds up his red shirts, so when they are written out, you are shocked, especially when it is often done so suddenly. Your favourite character could randomly take a bullet to the head and the story ploughs on without him. Every scene rewrites our expectations and it has been so long, since a movie has done that with my emotions that despite the plot holes, despite the totally off-balance sense of humour, Snowpiercer will always be an entertaining thriller.
Final Verdict: Shaky in tone at times, but when a movie is this original, not just with the setting but with the way movies are told, it deserves respect. Demands it, even.