Director: Bong Joon Ho (The Host, Mother, Memories of Murder)
Around this time last summer, I began to hear rumblings of a science-fiction flick coming out of South Korea featuring Chris Evans, John Hurt, and Tilda Swinton. It, like many of Evans’ films, was a comic book adaption, but not of recent material; rather, the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige. Given my penchant for foreign films and as a fan of Evans, Hurt, and Swinton, I began to follow the long arduous path Snowpiercer took to get to the states. Much like the movie itself, the path has been fraught with trials and tribulations all its own. But, first things first.
Originally released in South Korea in August 2013, Snowpiercer, directed by Bong Joon-Ho (The Host (2006), Mother (2009)) made its U.S. debut last Friday, June 27th. We learn that in July 2014, 79 countries sent rockets with a chemical only known as CW-7 into the upper atmosphere as a last ditch effort to lower the temperature of Earth to more habitable conditions. This plan worked to devastating effect, sending the entire Earth into a new Ice Age and leaving humanity on the verge of extinction. A small few survived by taking refuge on a train originally conceived as luxury transport and built to run on a single-track spanning the world with the capabilities to survive both the extreme cold of the arctic poles and the heat of the desert. In addition, the train possesses a self-sustaining ecosystem which provides food and water for all passengers aboard as long as things remain in balance.
When we met Curtis (Evans), it’s been seventeen years since CW-7 and life in the Tail of the train is difficult. People are stacked upon each other in overcrowded barracks; they subside on a protein bar ration of unknown origin and are constantly being tallied for numbers. At least twice, members of the Tail are forcibly removed by request of the Front. When the Tail attempts to fight back, punishment is swift and torturous. Rather than use bullets to punish a man for throwing a shoe at a Front-end representative, they force him to place an arm through a porthole, causing it to freeze and break off. Curtis knows that this life as fodder can’t continue and is already working on a plan with two partners: Gilliam (Hurt), the unofficial leader of the Tail, and an unknown benefactor, who sends hidden messages through the daily rations. Curtis is smart, recognizes that the guards in the Tail have guns with no bullets, and puts his plan into action. Once out of the Tail, he moves toward the jail section, through a food compartment, the water distribution center, and an elementary school compartment in search of the engine. If he can take the engine, he’ll have control of the train.
Along the way, Curtis’ small band of resistance fighters add disgraced security officer, Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-Ho Song) and his daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko) to their team to help them break through the doors barring access between each compartment. Locked doors, however, aren’t the only barrier they face on their journey from the Tail to the Front. In-between, the resistance must survive Tilda Swinton’s Mason, a representative from the Front who seem to take great joy in subjugating the Tail, and her axe-wielding, masked-men, as well as a suit-wearing Front-end goon that would give the Terminator a run for his money. Swinton’s screen time, much like Hurt’s, is short, but fantastic. Each scene she’s in, you can’t help but either hate or love her. While her character seems like a Front-end train zealot at first, she has a moment with Curtis where she takes out her top row of teeth. Moments like these occur throughout the film where we get glimpses of things going on underneath the surface; things that suggest something else is at play and that’s when the film truly shines.
American cinema’s greatest gift is also its greatest plague – we love a great action film. This means that the concept of subtext, of subtlety, is often set aside in favor of blunt exposition and imagery. Joon-Ho brings a different sensibility to Snowpiercer. Rather than giving us all the pieces, lines of dialogue scattered throughout the film that seem like meaningless toss-aways are given greater and greater weight as the movie continues. The visual representation, for example, of Hurt’s Gilliam is that of a Tail-end with one arm and one leg. Do we assume that because he’s in the back, of course he’d be missing limbs? Or did he do something to lose them? Why is Curtis so adamant, beyond tropes, to take up the mantle as leader? Is there a reason that no one sees the conductor and inventor of the train, Mr. Wilford? Most action movies attempt to placate the audience with one-liners, nudity, and explosions. Snowpiercer, instead, tries to ask you questions that you must be aware enough to notice. So much so that it isn’t until you watch it again that you realize how significant a quiet conversation can be.
Interestingly, the struggle for balance on the train spilled out into the real world as Joon-Ho conflicted with Harvey Weinstein, whose The Weinstein Company owned the U.S. distribution rights. While the reviews for Snowpiercer have been overwhelmingly positive overseas, Weinstein wanted to cut 20 minutes of footage from the film to make it more accessible to American audiences. Though specifics of what content was to be cut was never made clear, in a recent interview with The Mary Sue, John Hurt alluded that Weinstein wanted to cut content that focused on the characters and their relationships. I can only assume that cutting this type of material was meant to keep the focus of the story on the action and class warfare and less on the reasons why. While Snowpiercer has action aplenty, where it succeeds is in its characters. Rather than providing us with the standard hero and villain archtypes, we have the opportunity to explore the gray areas of life. What do people do when they are pushed beyond measure? What kind of subjugation are we willing to endure and at what point do we push back? Joon-Ho made his stand with The Weinstein Company to maintain his vision of what Snowpiercer should be and, though it resulted in a smaller release of the film, will likely reap a larger, long-term reward: Balance.
On its surface, Snowpiercer is your standard sci-fi fare with the usual expected tropes. The world is in shambles, humanity is separated into classes, the meek want to inherit the Earth, and we have the “one man emerges with a plan to takedown the bad guy” scenerio. It presents one version of what the end of the world could look like – dark, violent, desperate. But, ultimately, it’s more than that. As with every line of dialogue and every piece of scenery, there is more going on with Snowpiercer than first appears. In fact, I would argue that this film is about rebirth, renewal, and redemption. In trying to save the world from the end, we froze it. With the last remnants of humanity locked in perpetual motion, a battle of the classes emerges; each greater struggle provides an opportunity to make a different choice. Much like the sci-fi I love most – Blade Runner and Serenity, to name two, – this film doesn’t ask you to make a choice nor does it provide all the answers. Rather, it encourages us to recognize that sometimes the greatest act of rebellion is to choose a different path than the one we think we have to take. That true freedom comes from recognizing that fate is not driven by an infinite engine pushing a train down an endless track. That only through rebelling from ourselves can we create balance.
In short: do yourself, and Joon-Ho a favor and see this movie in the theater.
Final Score: 4 out of 5