Last summer, the biggest story for the movie-conscious community was Harvey “Scissorhands” Weinstein announcement that he would cut twenty minutes out of and add explanatory voice-overs to internationally acclaimed Korean director Joon-ho Bong’s post-apocalyptic action drama Snowpiercer. His insulting rationale was that audiences in the Midwest wouldn’t understand it otherwise.
After a nearly year-long battle, I was very excited to see that Weinstein had to acquiesce to the director’s cut due to extreme public pressure. Of course he retaliated immaturely, burying it in limited release rather than wide release as originally planned. For no reason other than to say screw you to Weinstein, I knew I had to see this film.
With near-unanimous ecstatic praise from top critics such as the cantankerous, very discerning David Denby or Dana Stevens who wrote, “[It] seems to have been sent back to us from some distant alternate future where grandiose summer action movies can also be lovingly crafted, thematically ambitious works of art,” I naturally went in with very high expectations. While it was good, it certainly wasn’t the revelation that many called it.
What sets it apart from other post-apocalyptic films is its moments of absurd black humor, interjected between many epic and dark violent sequences. The humor acts as a motif preceding significant moments of mystery and suspense, making each one come as more of a shock. For example, the hooded soldiers stopped a bloody battle to chant “Happy New Year!” The heroes vicariously inhale smoke from the now-extinct cigarette. Chromo, the hallucinogenic that the privileged inhale is a clever jab at the vapidity and toxicity, literally and figuratively, of today’s rich.
The school scene has a cartoonish 90s Tim Burton-esque quality with the overly chirpy students and teacher (Alison Pill) mindlessly repeating propaganda through the tried-and-true method of corny songs. One stand out touch is the Teacher on a revolving piano. It’s not only one of the more entertaining scenes, but also the most effective overall because its political statement is best realized and cleverly understated.
Tilda Swinton is a riot as Wilbur’s inept, bumbling liaison. She offers the film’s first bit of comic relief (and the first departure from the normalcy of action films) when she tests the megaphone before delivering a belittling speech to the folks in the rear after an altercation with the soldiers, with a dumb metaphor of the hat and shoe to represent the social classes. She manifests as a sci-fi Maggie Smith with atrocious teeth, bumbling like the thespian in A Room with A View.
In spite of being the most cartoonish externally, Swinton’s Mason is the only fully realized three-dimensional character. Swinton masterfully expresses her character through her body language, at some points puffed up with authority, and cowering and deflated when confronted. Although she comes across as silly in her physical actions, there is an undercurrent of a cunning survivor who in reality is as vulnerable as those she is attempting to oppress.
However, the film does suffer from a weak leading male character, played by Chris Evans. He has no personality and his doubts of assuming a leadership position are unconvincing considering how effortlessly he takes command and initiates the whole revolution. Once he becomes one of the only characters on screen the film sags. The filmmakers valiantly try to compensate for this lack by providing him with an eleventh hour backstory, but it isn’t interesting or necessary. I was ready for him to blow up the damn gate already.
The whole third act was a mess. Its biggest crime was its talkiness, with all of the significant male characters giving boring ideological sermons. It’s regrettable that the plot twists are all clumsily revealed in dialogue rather than being shown or gradually unraveled (come on, the film is over two hours). Something was missing as the film jumped from pure action to pure verbosity, with the two elements never coalescing.
Because of the last third’s inertia, plot holes become apparent. For the sake of not spoiling the movie, I will not note them here, though I’ll give you a heads up on the hilariously bad continuity error concerning a fur coat for a certain character.
I was disappointed by Joon-ho Bong’s and Kelly Masterson’s screenplay. I haven’t seen Bong’s two highly acclaimed films, The Host (2006) or Mother (2009), but I caught another, lesser known film on Netflix Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), another a pitch-black comedy about a stressed out down-on-his-luck city man attempting to permanently shut up a neighbor’s incessantly barking dog. While Snowpiercer is better overall than his 2000 effort, which was bogged down by an uninteresting leading lady, an airheaded social worker in the pursuit of the dog killer, both films have great concept and occasionally brilliant moments. they also have moments that fall flat and are overly confusing. (Full critique of Dogs).
Snowpiercer has similarities with Masterson’s other movie screenplay Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, with the claustrophobia and characters’ emotional breakdowns. Unfortunately, Masterson doesn’t imbue Snowpiercer with the impeccable character development that made Devil such a compelling story. Here, character development is pushed away in favor of plot and a series of overly abstract and overly simplified political ideas and allegories. The dialogue is replete with a bunch of the “no shit Sherlock” banalities of most action fare.
Much of Snowpiercer’s accolades come from its message and what it strives to do, rather than what it actually does. It’s sort of the critical equivalent of the cult of Star Trek. It addresses some hard and unpopular issues such as class disparities, how power is concentrated in hands of a very few, mob mentality, controlling the masses by fear, the build up to revolution, and the fallacy of believing that we have choices and freedoms.
I understand the point that the movie is trying live in luxury while others have nothing save for a puny protein bar. The disparity is perfectly captured in the mise-en-scene of the gray, murky, rat hole back and the neon yellow glitz of the front, very reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange.
But it was reducible and didn’t go beyond the surface implications. One of the reasons the film’s earlier passages works better is that there are multiple characters, creating an ensemble feel, since no one character (except Swinton) is really fleshed out. None of the wealthy people emerge past the point of window dressing. The writers should have created some characters out of these classes to keep up the frenetic pace.
Bong does an impeccable job at directing the action sequences. They’re swift and fast paced, without showing gratuitous details, and feature a seamless mix of the stylized martial arts wire works and more organic and confrontational street fighting. They’re full of suspense, not following the tried-and-true typical Mission Impossible good-guys-always-one-step-ahead, and there are tons of twists and turns that often end tragically.
The visuals and special effects departments do stellar work with an intriguing and organic blend of gritty realism inside the train but highly stylized CGI snowy exteriors, keeping an element of the graphic novel, the original source material, but making it feel like a real movie.
Considering the numerous Asian, Eastern European, and Nordic names behind the scenes and the fact this is international coproduction, there is a disappointing lack of diversity in the casting, primarily comprised of American and UK actors. A more diverse cast could have strengthened the global political message and made it feel like a more drastic departure from the standard American action film. Initially, we heard multiple languages spoken at the beginning, but for the most part, our only glimpse of multiculturalism came from two characters and frequent Bong collaborators, Yona (Ah-sung Ko), a 17-year-old girl with telekinesis and Namgoong (Kang-ho Sung), the only character who doesn’t say a line in English. Other than Octavia Spencer and Marcanthonee Jon Reis who plays her son, I only spotted one black extra in the entire film.
If you don’t go to Snowpiercer with the expectations of seeing the latest post-modern masterpiece for our time, chances are good that you’ll have a great time. For those of you like me who were hedging our bets on it being a 21st century successor to the greatness of A Clockwork Orange, Snowpiercer was a little disappointing. That movie hasn’t come yet.