'Snowpiercer is now playing at the Music Box Theater.
It’s customary for this Examiner column to generally feature non-English-language films, but the last two or three years have seen a number of foreign directors make some impressive English-language debuts. They include, but are not limited to, Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami) (not exclusively, but liberally, English-language), Stoker (Chan-ho Park), and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson), films that, despite not being created in the director’s native language, nonetheless successfully transplant their unique sensibilities.
Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer (South Korea / USA, 2013) starts out, somewhat disappointingly, as a pretty ham-fisted dystopian allegory. But once the initial premise is established, Bong brings a wealth of eccentric ideas and details that enliven the proceedings, and the overall result is a pretty satisfying summer movie roller-coaster ride for any audience.
In the present day, well-intentioned global scientists disperse a chemical compound called CW-7 into the Earth’s atmosphere to slow the effects of global warming. Unfortunately, CW-7 instead brings on a new global ice age, destroying most human and wild life as we know it. (Oh, those humans, messing with Mother Nature again…). As fate would have it, though, the enterprising gazillionaire industrialist Mr. Wilford has created and completed his lifelong dream project, a “luxury locomotive cruise line” that runs in a yearlong circle throughout the globe. And it’s within this massive, self-energizing, constantly moving train that the last vestiges of humanity have been marooned for over 17 years, where the film’s story actually starts. Wilford, of course, being the capitalist that he is, maintains and enforces strict hierarchical divisions between those lucky privileged few at the front of the train and the teeming mob of the great unwashed commoners in the rearmost cars, using his Prime Minister Factotum, Mason (Tilda Swinton, channeling Margaret Thatcher, among others) to communicate the laws and keep the rabble under thumb. He sees it as balance – those in steerage, as it were, see it as hell. A few attempts at rebellion from the rear cars have been tried, but Wilford’s militarized enforcers and loyal administrators have repeatedly thwarted them.
The rebellion we are about to watch has some intriguing prospects. This one’s being led by the modest, charismatic but admirably single-minded Curtis (Chris Evans), who has been receiving tiny smuggled notes of encouragement and strategy from someone up front. He learns that the designer of the train’s door locks and security systems, Namgoung Minsoo (the terrific Korean actor Song Kang-ho), is being held in the train’s prison car, just a few cars away. Collaborating with the rear cars’ elder statesman Gilliam (John Hurt), Curtis devises a plan to breach the defenses of those cars and free Minsoo, whom he knows to be addicted to the powerful industrial-waste drug Kronol. With Minsoo running interference on the technology, Curtis figures his small army of rebels can handle any other resistance they encounter, especially since he believes the last few rebellions have left Wilford’s army of enforcers with no ammunition for their weapons. They reach the prison car and free Minsoo; he agrees to their plan (in his surly fashion), but insists that his daughter Yona (Ko Ah-sung) must come as well, and she’ll need as much Kronol as he’s getting. With ground rules established, they proceed down the train, car-by-car, and into the rabbit hole.
Some of the cars are as they expected – elaborate garden and aquarium cars that were initially designed for the luxury-seeking clientele they’d hoped to serve in a populated world. But others contain devilish twists – the car in which their food is manufactured (gelatinous slabs of protein that have sustained them admirably) reveals how the ‘sausage’ is made, and it’s an unpleasant surprise, as is the next car full of masked hatchet-wielding soldiers. The water-supply car turns out to be much less than hoped; the lush aquarium car, however, includes a sushi bar – ice age or no ice age, we’re eating well, damn it. The school classroom car is a perky and colorful propaganda delivery lab, presided over with Orwellian / Randian enthusiasm by its earnest and bubbly teacher (a perfectly cast Alison Pill). It isn’t any kind of trippy weirdness or stylized overinvention that grabs you here – it’s that each car creates a new kind of vaguely surreal cognitive dissonance for the rebels as they move forward – they’ve rarely seen windows, let alone anything else these cars contain; the classroom, a dentist’s office, a beauty salon, a tailor’s studio, sauna booths.
The plot is a canny mish-mash of George Orwell and Philip K. Dick, John Carpenter and The Road Warrior. There are alliances and betrayals, heroes and villains, ironies drawn from both the Sam Peckinpah and Joss Whedon playbooks, and that George Romero idea that, whether it’s zombies or the ice age deterring us, we’ll regretfully but justifiably step over your corpse to indulge ourselves as we have learned to, as we see fit, as we see ourselves deserving. Some have labeled the film as being primarily liberal in sensibility, but the downsides of unconditional freedom, or even anarchy, and the upsides of centralized control and imposed order, are, in my view, given equal hearings here. It takes a particularly cruel plot twist to convince us that Wilford (Ed Harris) is a genuine villain – he otherwise makes a lot of seemingly reasonable arguments – but do Wilford’s own particularly excessive choices render his larger philosophies irretrievable? I know my answer, but your mileage may differ.
For an internationally distributed potential blockbuster with a sizable budget, Snowpiercer is a curious enterprise for a seasoned pro like Bong (Memories Of Murder, The Host, Mother). He’s taken on an enormous set of visual boundaries – almost the entire film is cramped interiors and narrow hallways with very limited options for movement and lighting, its studio-shot options notwithstanding. But he and cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo accept the challenge with an amazing array of ingenious shots, depths-of-field, use of space and lots and lots of different lenses. It’s a very slick-looking movie that doesn’t parade its slickness – it just feels like potential problems have been solved in an expertly creative manner.
The final moments of the film show us two survivors, forced outside of the train by circumstance, watching a polar bear scale the side of a hill. Are they free to survive, or free to be the bear’s dinner? Or might freedom be secondary to survival? These are tougher questions than a summer action movie really needs to be bothered with, but you’ll be very glad Bong bothered anyway. The film’s minor flaws will become apparent after some after-viewing thought, but, as a thrilling filmgoing experience, it’s gonna be tough for anything else to beat it for that this year.