Thursday, September 4, 2014

Snowpiercer Review - Nailed It

The story of my efforts to see this movie might make for a decent post, but I won't bother with that now. Suffice to say that I made something like 4 trips to the movie theater, and was shut out every time. The reasons varied, but the results were the same. It's taken a while to write this up, which I just revealed to be my "last" review here - mostly because I promised myself a break from blogging - but I think the post is ready for mass consumption.

Bong Joon-ho is a director I've been following since I first read an early AICN review of 2006's The Host. That movie was an excellent "monster in a city" horror film, and I was simply stunned by its tension, drama, and high caliber effects. And, while I missed his follow-up, 2009's Mother, I was even more stunned to learn his next film would have a mostly American/English cast: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Ewen Bremner, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt... In fact, the only returning Korean figures were Song Kang-ho, the lead in Host, and Go Ah-sung, who has played his daughter in both that film and this one.

Well, no matter the cast or the setting, the quality of Bong's storytelling and filmmaking hasn't diminished one bit. If this writer/director isn't already there, then this latest pic should really place him on a list of people to look out for...

By way of a quick opening montage, we learn that efforts to defeat global warming backfired horribly. A brief opening scrawl tells that Earth in 2031 is a frozen wasteland, all life is dead, and humanity's survivors live aboard a train that circles the globe constantly. Curtis Everett (Chris Evans, playing a role with his own real-life initials) is one of the ill-treated folks at the very back of that train. Curtis keeps insisting that he's not a leader, although his best friends, Edgar (Bell) and Tanya (Spencer), constantly turn to him for orders and advice. Everett, however, keeps passing the buck on to his mentor - the wise, crippled Gilliam (Hurt).

The danger with a science fiction effort like this is that you often receive waves of clumsy exposition that feel unnatural and/or slow the movie down. Yet this movie barrels right into things after that opening montage: in 2031, the world is frozen and all life is dead, except for the people who've lived (or been born) on this train since 2014. And, with that said, Bong's film largely abandons backstory and focuses on providing a sense of what life is like for the unfortunate people in the tail section.

This picture is distinct, original, smartly-made and beautiful to behold. 17 years of isolation have created a hyper-underclass with the most meager subsistence imaginable: dirty, worn clothes, no sunlight, subjected to cramped conditions, headcount inspections and odd demands from armed, hurtful overseers who provide black gelatinous "protein blocks" for food; they don't even have work, so they seem more like homeless folks than simply the lower class. Meanwhile, the ones at the front of the train have all the power - those people seem clean, are well-dressed, and supposedly eat luxuries like chicken.

You quickly learn that Chris Evans' Curtis and his comrades are on the brink of an uprising. As you get a sense for who these people are, you're already sympathetic to their situation. And the story keeps moving along briskly, taking your imagination along with it. This is aided by uniformly-fine acting from good actors whose characters have arcs and progression. The amazing visuals add a lot, too, and the energetic action sequences and special effects shots most certainly help.

You probably shouldn't watch this clip until you've seen the whole thing.

But, to an educated filmgoer, there are already so many elements that will call out to you! How many movies manage to intelligently allude to various things, like:
-CWX-7, the cooling airborne chemical that leads to disaster, mirrors ice-nine in Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle.
-Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged is reflected not only in the ways that both the privileged and the deprived brutally act in their own self-interest, but in having a central figure who owns trains.
-Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal, in the way that the lowest classes are expected to live somehow or just die, along with other parallels.
-The existence of a hidden, super-powerful ruler waiting at the end of a long journey recalls the title character in Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz.
-The circularity of society's actions and class structure are also represented by the train's globe-spanning course, and the cycles of underclass revolt.
-The root of the word "sabotage," in the literal form of the thrown shoe that incites Everett's revolution. Hell, even the other popular use of the word "revolution" has to do with circles.
-Fascist dictatorships in the nature of Tilda's first speech and body language as well as the cult of personality built around Wilford, the creator of the train.

And everything I've pointed out is aside from the fact that the train's passengers are in perpetual motion, but they aren't going anywhere.

However, I can imagine that some viewers complain because the final third or so of this movie gets... "impressionistic" seems to be the best word. It gets impressionistic as hell, which means certain things that you see or hear don't make much sense at all. By rules of basic logic, this pic does start to fall apart - but this is a quality piece of filmmaking. So, rather than focus on why some things aren't sensible, one must instead consider what Snowpiercer is trying to convey or evoke.

To me, the only way to review this movie fairly is to address some of those odd choices, and that requires SPOILERS. So if you haven't seen it yet, stop reading because I'm about to spoil the f--k out of this. Seriously, turn away and feel ashamed that (a) you haven't watched it and (b) you almost ruined this rich narrative adventure for yourself. Skip to the last three paragraphs.

The clearest example of the pic's gradually-growing impressionism on things like plot and character: Nam (Kang-ho), the security expert who's so crucial to the revolt, doesn't want to unlock the final gate that leads to Wilford and the train's engine. Instead, Nam tells Everett he intends to blow open a smaller side door beside the final gate and to jump off the train altogether.

Now, I don't give every movie such benefit of the doubt, but this film is good - its behavior and approach earns my trust. In the brief respite before the climax, Nam is talking about looking for a way of life that goes beyond this miserable train. In the same way that you deal with bullies by ignoring them, you can escape awful situations by turning your attention to something altogether different.

And the idea behind that conversation is good and smart and very appropriate to the moment and these characters. I'm glad for it - even though jumping off a train without stopping it is the dumbest f--king plan in the world. Worse still, Nam wants to explode a steel door when he just passed several noticeably breakable windows. WTF

So I preferred to see that scene through an impressionistic lens, as a philosophical impasse between two people: Everett has lived in captivity, and been broken by a regime that he now wants to destroy; Nam was imprisoned in a metal coffin, but looks forward to a new course for his life that ignores this same lousy system. Worrying about the idiocy of jumping off (or a huge explosive blast on steel rather than a tiny one on glass) is to miss the point of what their argument represents. I know it's sympathetic analysis (e.g., "dear Lord, what's Bong thinking?... Oh, here's a kind interpretation that fits"). I confess not everyone receives that from me. An empty Michael Bay/Brett Ratner/Zach Snyder movie doesn't merit that - it's virtually impossible for them to abandon sense in service of a complicated character moment or to make some sort of intellectual point - but I always saw enough in this smart film to know its choices truly deserved to be thought about, not just reacted to.

The French poster's train being a Cylon does not bode well.

Similarly, the final conversation between Everett and Wilford is "what if the Architect scene in Matrix Reloaded was actually good." Without another 20 minutes of footage, it makes no sense that Everett could maintain the engine and rule the train. Impressionistically, however, the empowered figure is passing on his knowledge - and the power of choice- to a weaker, ignorant person.

At the same time, this speech wants to deny choice - it's couched in the language of fate, destiny - and demands the hero embrace and become part of "the system." It's a heady moment, and could have been even more thought-provoking if given further time to breathe.

And I don't even mind that it is negated/concluded by a classic mad super-villain touch that removes the element of choice and makes our hero's decision an inescapable event.

Why? Well, I S--T YOU NOT, but Wilford reveals much of what the Architect did: the societal system on the train relies on the occasional revolt to help keep the train's population density in check. Throughout, Wilford is spoken of as being a god - merciful, kind, powerful, a preserver of life - and this element completes the symmetry nicely. When one believes in a GOD that controls all, this not only allows for a deity's unknowable plan, but it mirrors the way that any catastrophe can be interpreted as part of that design.

Furthermore, a "god" can be seen as a cultivator - like a gardener of human lives or a rancher/farmer managing livestock. Anyone with experience in the last two knows about "culling" a herd (or "pruning" in the former case), which is exactly how you can describe Wilford's plan. All three professions involve the destruction of some life - not for sustenance, but for the healthy and harmonious growth of the overall collective of plants or animals.

Hi, I'm God. I only speak a language called "Thesaurus."

But this time out - well, for one thing, we understand the words that are being spoken on the screen. Truly, why Curtis is chosen for the task isn't explained enough, to me. Yet that's different than where the second of The Matrices failed: with stilted, impregnable dialogue. The Eastern effort at least lets me consider things like what it means when tyranny turns a revolutionary leader into its successor. That's... kinda deep.

The version by Bong and cowriter Kelly Masterson excels because they offer a sincere emotional aspect as well as a character thread: The thread is that Everett has rejected himself as a leader from the opening minutes, and he's ultimately getting pushed to go all the way against what he renounces. It's textbook storytelling to offer a complete arc, so it makes sense when it happens. The result, as filmed, comes across as very... human.

The emotional aspect has also been unspooling since the get-go: Curtis has struggled with sacrifice, which we learn is lifelong. Before, it was other people, as in the early days, or of himself - in that forearm scar. Along this journey, it has included a friend: Edgar, who's Irish and (sigh) persecuted yet plucky, a hated cliche that nearly broke my disbelief. In the end, CE either abandons his desires by not stopping the engine, or he jeopardizes mankind. The stakes are all or nothing now, at a time that sacrifice is all around, and even inevitable.

Better still, the moment is not dry. The roles create a mood that works, while Neo and Architect (Archy?) were tone deaf and had zero energy. Wilford's voice instantly made my brain say "Howard Hughes!" It's a choice I respect, and the actor projects a lot of spirit into his role's long-awaited appearance.

The big W's charisma also clashes nicely with Everett's semi-abrasive captive behavior. The tension and despair and exhaustion felt by Curtis are great, as is his struggle to maintain self-control while being true to himself. Is it universal? Maybe, Maybe not - but the fact that our hero is seething at least engages the audience.

The poor bastards on this train really are living out The Matrix - it's just a crappy combo of the real-world deprivations suffered by unplugged folks, along with the cyclical regime of control suffered by everyone generally. And, like Neo, the savior here is asked to join and sustain that regime. It might've been better to freeze, honestly.

The final third/quarter of the pic displays several little flaws of logic, which includes the eventual climax itself. The train's derailment is a great visual, but it's so extreme that it's not survivable... Yet does this director deserve my trust? I owe it to him.

Again, I would otherwise be a hardass, but it's the result of the climax, a moment that represents Curtis joining Nam's rejection of the System that underlies this monstrous micro-society. The climax has a commendable narrative craftsmanship, despite the weird shots - the engine opening, the fiery "hell" Chris reaches into - and the revolutionaries' choice to use explosives nearby. It maintains a unity of plot and character and emotion - a hallmark of good writing, in a unique story setting, with very solid execution.

It's like Bong went to film school or something.

So we have four people of three different backgrounds come together - two from the past world, two from the present one. The couple from the new generation are protected and freed, and allowed to find a better way to live. Which flows neatly to an end meant to be viewed with an impressionistic eye.

When this pair steps out into the frozen wasteland, they are stunned by this completely fresh environment. As they look around them, the kids realize that everyone was wrong: a polar bear spotted in the distance proves that life has survived, and that the world is on the path to healing and recovery.

Honestly, I think that a high-speed derailment is the dumbest possible outcome - several cars plunge off a cliff, and it's doubtful that anyone in any other boxcar still lives... Man, it doesn't make sense that the two youngsters are even breathing.

But the point is that life survived. So long as there is life, there's hope - and it's a whole lot more hopeful when that life isn't chained to a sadistic and torturous society like the one that just died. They escaped "the machine," one which has been shown as a literal and figurative meat grinder, and now Life has a real chance. The fact that the survivors are a male and a female lends an Adam & Eve connotation, as well...

I admit, other people wouldn't be quick to try to interpret the events of the last half. And I'm not even saying that all those scenes I can explain are perfect or that I agree with the way they're made. But they mean that someone is really trying - intelligent, original science fiction is too rare these days. I can't begrudge Snowpiercer some little failings, since the overall result is worth turning off the part of my brain that's nitpicky... Common sense doesn't outweigh a good story that is told well. And the impressionistic readings do fit perfectly.

And this is coming from me, aka "Mr. Plot and Character Logistics." Very often have I cried foul, and not enjoyed a picture too much when its credibility is absent or gets abandoned.

The movie is a great cinematic experience, and I hope it receives the praise and attention that it deserves. It's been a total sleeper film in the US - and still out in some theaters, despite being released at the end of June - but it's a major hit in all the countries that got to see it in 2013. The biggest shame, then, is that Snowpiercer's international reception and critical praise has not been matched by its Stateside success. It's a brilliant effort, and I'm especially impressed by what the makers pulled out of the events of the source material.


  1. OK, so I'm going to do two comments, this one without spoilers. I love this film, and your review. Maybe the biggest reason for it is that I really appreciate Bong's "impressionistic" streak.

    Maybe I'm still traumatized by the way that Hong Kong's fresh young directors got homogenized into the Hollywood system 20 years ago, but I'm overjoyed to see a Korean filmmaker make a relatively big English-language action flick that has a decidedly non-Western sensibility.

    Having the train's reality "break" roughly halfway through the movie prepares us for an ending that relies heavily on metaphor. Without that shift into growing surrealism (and it's surreal on top of the sci-fi premise), the film's ending wouldn't work.

    1. Yeah, it is closer to halfway-through rather than the final third. And I do agree that the progressive uptick in impressionism allows the oddities in the story to feel natural instead of out-of-the-blue (and they would *definitely* feel stupid or like bad decisions).

      I completely agree that Bong is showing a lot of promise - and, better yet, living up to it.

      Thank you so much!

  2. I haven't seen the film but have heard much about it(Entertainment Weekly did a nice spread on it a few weeks ago) and SP does sound like a smart movie. Maybe Hollywood thinks it's too smart for summer fare?

    1. It's still playing at the East Village Cinemas (2nd ave and 12th) until Sunday, at least.

      I think part of the problem is that it didn't get a lot of marketing promotion, and theater owners were probably pissed that it was given a simultaneous VOD/theatrical release. Hell, as far as I know, there were theaters in other cities where it was announced - and then puled.

      It's all a damn shame for a great movie that the Weinstein's raced to snap up as quickly as possible. If you get a chance, please check it out! Knowing your tastes, I think you'll really like it...

  3. This time with SPOILERS for Snowpiercer:

    That ending is so similar to the Architect scene in the Matrix Reloaded, that part of me feels it has to be a straight-up rebuke toward the Wachowskis for the lameness of that climactic scene. I mean, there's even an analogue to the revelation that the Oracle (a person who's supporting and guiding the rebellion) is actually an agent of the system, charged with helping to maintain a healthy closed ecosystem.

    I think that what Bong's improvements on the Matrix sequel reveal is that the Architect scene's downfall wasn't primarily the stilted dialogue--it's (as you pointed out) the scene's tone. The Wachowskis made a tragic mistake in offloading all of Neo's emotions in the scene on to the teeny-tiny TV set Neos in the background, so there's no emotion in the scene. The Architect's an AI (and not one in crisis like Agent Smith in the first movie) and Neo's more mildly confused than angry and horrified at the prospect of humanity's extinction. I'm guessing this was supposed to show us that Neo, with his Buddha-like calm, was different and/or better than his predecessors. What it really did was rob the scene of any weight. The Architect may've been able to see the chemical reactions of emotion in Neo, but we couldn't.

    (Regardless, I'd have to wonder if the scene would have been better if the Wachowskis had gotten their first casting choice for the Architect, Sean Connery. At the very least, Connery would've had the clout to force a rewrite eliminating words that he couldn't or didn't want to pronounce.)

    In the equivalent scene in Snowpiercer, Evans is mostly silent. All we get from him are these powerful emotions--seething anger, betrayal, confusion--that he's trying to hold inside. That emotion sells the scene, even if some parts of it don't make sense.

    Still, I'd argue that choosing Everett as a successor kinda sorta makes sense. From tail to head, the train is a spectrum from absolute altruism (guys lopping off their own limbs to feed others) to Randian self-interest. Curtis has shown leadership qualities in simply reaching the head of the train, and the backstory he gives us just prior to the end shows us he's on Team Self-interest. Presuming that leading the train is more about making hard ecosystem choices than about engineering, Curtis is probably a decent choice to lead, a better choice at least than Willford cronies like Mason.

    1. Well, yes, Curtis makes sense as *leader* - & Wilford says something about principles of evolution, by which measure Curtis is doing well - it's just that I still felt felt confused by the moment. You were dead right that he's shown the ability to operate on a level that would make him a good fit for master of the rails.

      I was also impressed that they brought Gilliam into the regime - you're quite right that it makes him the counterpart to the Oracle, and both pairs (Gilliam/Wilford + Oracle/Architect) are positioned as a God/Devil coupling.

      You're also right that the Matrix Reloaded dialogue isn't the failing - it just makes the scene hard to comprehend. It's the deadened feeling of the moment that really sinks it.

      In the prior film, we had the horror of Neo's realizing what the Matrix is, and the thrill of his eventual acceptance of his role. Then the sequel comes along, explains some shocking facts, and ups the stakes, and they might as well be discussing Cricket scores...

      I just find it interesting that both movies offer a mature and intellectual take on the hero/villain confrontation. No "you will die!" or trite bs. The lead is captured on the cusp of destroying the system, and then he's offered the chance to keep living.

      Even more, Neo and Curtis are not only being asked to abandon their goals, they're invited to join the other side and help them realize *their* objectives. It's heady, and straight out of mythology. I noticed the Architect connection instantly, but I'm just so happy that Bong and his rare sense of style managed to do it properly...


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