Snowpiercer, the English-language debut of acclaimed South Korean movie director Bong Joon-ho, is a movie that “they” don’t want you to see.
Who are they? Well, that would be Harvey Weinstein and his people at the Weinstein Company who asked that, despite Snowpiercer breaking box-office records in South Korea, despite the movie receiving great buzz from fans, despite its reputation as a solid, smart, science fiction action film, what Snowpiercer really needed to make it in the United States was to have a good twenty minutes lopped out of it, and opening and closing monologues added in at either end, possibly to dumb things down for the audience. Bong Joon-ho refused, and managed to get his way. In retaliation, the Weinstein company balked at a wide release in North America, instead limiting the picture to just theatres in eight cities. The buzz that the film has generated in spite of this petulant attempt to bury it has forced the Weinstein Company to expand the number of showings to 150 theatres across the continent — a wider release, but far short of what this film deserves.
Fortunately, at the same time as its limited release across North America, the film came available for rent (at premium prices) on iTunes, where it immediately rocketed to number one on the charts. Thus Erin and I were able to rent this film last night, and be blown away by the strength of Bong Joon-ho’s vision.
So, what is Snowpiercer about? Please note that, from here, there may be spoilers.
So, in an alternate version of 2014, the governments of the world finally decide to take action against global warming. Unfortunately, they decide to do it by spewing a new substance in the atmosphere (creepily illustrated by contrails from passing planes) designed to reflect the sun’s light and lower temperatures around the world. Of course, this goes Horribly Wrong™. Instead of a restoration of normality, the Earth flash freezes — possibly as fast as if a boatload of Ice-9 was dropped into the world’s oceans, as done in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Cat’s Cradle.
Almost all life on the world is extinguished in a matter of weeks. That any humans survive at all is largely due to a crazed trillionaire named Wilford, who has set up a world-spanning model train (3x life-size scale) able to stay on the track while it crashes through solid ice at TGV speeds, and provide a self-sustaining miniature ecosystem for its hyper-rich passengers in the first class and economy sections, and the thousand or so refugees in the tail who managed to clamber aboard just as the world turned to ice.
Eighteen years later, this train (which I don’t think is ever called the “Snowpiercer” on screen) appears to be the only thing moving on the planet, and its passengers have taken on the world’s class structure in microcosm. The first class passengers live in unbridled luxury, while steerage passengers barely scrape by, brutally oppressed by Wilford’s soldiers who periodically come to count the number of passengers aboard the tail, and take away the children. Despite there having been failed revolutions already, a haunted man named Curtis Everett (played by Chris Evans) decides they simply can’t take it anymore.
Encouraged by his one-armed, one-legged mentor named Gilliam (wonderfully played by John Hurt), Everett reluctantly but ably leads his fellow passengers to rise up against their oppressors in a bid to charge through the length of the train and take control of the engine. They are opposed by Wilford’s ministers, led by the schoolmarmish Minister Mason (played by Tilda Swinton), who adds considerable and maniacal whimsy to the proceedings as she tries to tell the oppressed why they bloody well deserve to be oppressed and to sit down and shut up.
Although bullets appear to have “gone extinct” over the course of the last revolution, Wilford’s regime has access to more than enough technology (and axes) to exact horrible losses on the rebels, but the rebels have the numbers, and not much left to lose. Moreover, Everett is able to reach the prison car and free Namgoong Minsu, a former security officer for Wilford played by the film’s South Korean star, Song Kang-ho, as well as his 17-year-old daughter Yona, played by Go Ah-sung. By promising Minsu access to Kronol, a highly explosive drug that many in the front sections are apparently addicted to, Everett and his rebels are able to break the locks on the doors between the many sections of the train.
Pretty soon, the rebellion is more than halfway through the train, making it the most successful uprising in the history of the Snowpiercer. But are things going too well? Who is the person in the front section sending hidden messages in the food back to the tail section? Why is Everett himself so hell-bent on confronting and taking out the mysterious Wilford? And is the planet outside really as dead as it seems?
Snowpiercer is gritty and violent. Though the premise is pure science-fiction, most of the movie’s special effects budget has gone to the sets and the visuals, which are among the strongest elements of the movie. Director (and co-writer) Bong Joon-ho’s adaptation of the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, is utterly fascinating to look at, though there are moments of genuine horror, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the distinct shortage of bullets. If you want awe-inspiring post-apocalyptic visuals (and who doesn’t?), Bong Joon-ho delivers.
He is helped by a cast who act their socks off in a variety of different ways. Chris Evans’ Everett is understated, but not underacted. He is the angry straight-man who bears witness to the bewildering horrors around them. Even as things get progressively more surreal the further up the train he goes (is it my imagination, or do the first class passengers seem insane through their own sense of desperation and denial? It feels to me like Bong Joon-ho shows that they know that they are doomed. And, unlike the people in the tail section, they have nobody above them to revolt against), his deadpan is a reflection of our disbelief that this could possibly be happening.
Evans is backed by John Hurt as Everett’s mentor Gilliam, and by Tilda Swinton, as the initial primary antagonist Minister Mason. You know that these actors can deliver, and they do. Swinton in particular is horrifying with her schoolmarmish approach, talking down to the tail-sectioners as if they were children. Her initial speech, involving a shoe, and its payback later in the movie provide two of the strongest moments of the film.
But I really appreciate the work of Korean actors Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung, as Minsu and his daughter. Easily dismissed as drug addicted front-sectioners, Song Kang-ho delivers subtle flashes which show that Minsu knows more than what he’s telling, and has an agenda all his own. The revelation of that agenda, and the misdirection it reveals, is a Crowning Moment of Awesome™ in this film.
Actress Go Ah-sung is, unfortunately, linked to possibly the weakest element of the movie, though it’s not her fault. Her character, Yona, is clairvoyant. Director and co-writer Bong Joon-ho just throws that in there, and doesn’t make much about it. Yona’s clairvoyance gives her an ability to sense what’s beyond the doors the rebels are about to open, and it explains how she’s able to make the discovery that she does at the end of the movie. It feels out of place in an otherwise grimly realistic film, partly because the director seems to just toss it in (am I wrong in thinking this is how Magical Realism works? “I need a character who can give a sense of foreshadowing of what’s to come!”/”I know, let’s make that character clairvoyant!”/”Works for me!”), and it shoehorns an element of the plot in a movie that didn’t need to shoehorn anything else in. Still, the actress performs very well, the script supports her the rest of the time, and she gets to deliver the film’s image of hope.
Indeed, watching Go Ah-sung and Song Kang-ho, and you realize that Snowpiercer is far from a typical Hollywood movie. This is a South Korean production that director Bong Joon-ho has kindly shared with the rest of the world. The diversity of its cast, the intelligence of the narrative, the stark, horrific beauty of its visuals, are things I’ve rarely, if ever, seen in a Hollywood film. And this may be why Harvey Weinstein and his company didn’t quite get it, and feared that North American audiences wouldn’t get it either.
Well, maybe. Snowpiercer is no Transformers, and thank God for that. It delivers something fresh and new and strangely compelling. It delivers great science-fiction action without lasers or a multitude of bullets. The characters, even the minor ones, are real and solid and compelling (it would be shameful not to mention Octavia Spencer and Jamie Bell’s performances, or Ed Harris as the creepy Wilford, but I’m running out of time). The premise may sound ludicrous, but all questions are addressed, and in the thick of the movie, you just don’t have the time or the inclination not to believe.
Snowpiercer deserves a wide-release and a lot of attention. With this review, I hope to do my part in getting this film the attention it deserves.
- Wichita Eagle: Snowpiercer pioneering new method of movie distribution.
- Globe and Mail: Snowpiercer: Keeps its Message Straightforward - 3.5 stars out of 4.
- Toronto Star: Snowpiercer is Hell on Wheels and a Glorious Head Trip - 3.5 stars out of 4.
And here’s the trailer. Be warned that the movie is rated “R”.