Snowpiercer: ****/*****, or 8/10
Blame it on the economic crisis or some such, but it continues to be a good time for post-apocalyptic cinema. Hollywood jumps on the-end-of-the-world bandwagon multiple times a year it appears, and there's no excuse for other countries not to also try their hand at exploring dystopian societies where human rights are nonexistant. A striking example from last year includes the big budget Elysium, wherein the majority of mankind is left to suffer on an overpopulated and heavily polluted Earth while the rich live a life of luscious luxury up in space. Directed by native South-African Neill Blomkamp, he utilized his home land settings and talent to great effect, though ultimately the Hollywood approach in terms of story and marketing prevailed (though it didn't much harm the film overall). Not so with Snowpiercer, which dabbles in very similar themes, but proves to be enriched as a viewing experience by a rather un-American sensibility, courtesy of South-Korean director Joon-ho Bong.
It cannot be denied that Snowpiercer's premise – based off the French comic Le Transperceneige – has to be taken with a grain of salt, at the risk of sounding utterly ludicrous. Set in the year 2031, seventeen years after a worldwide attempt to halt global warming by dispersing cooling gasses into the atmosphere went mercilessly awry, our planet suffers under an extreme ice age that covers the globe in snow and ice. Humanity's last few survivors live aboard a huge train, where a rigid class system has developed. The poor masses are relegated to the back compartments of the train, while the wealthy live in the front in relative comfort. Powered by a perpetuum mobile, the train rages over the frozen planet's surface, seemingly ad infinitum. While the haves play and party to their leisure, the have-nots suffer endlessly, huddled together in uninterrupted squalor and near-starvation. The rich are only interested in their kids, which they take away at random for undisclosed but doubtlessly sinister purposes. But biding their time under the command of the calculating Curtis (Chris Evans), the dispossessed plot their revolution, hellbent on overthrowing the repressive system and taking over the train for themselves. Such a plot line seems thirteen-a-dozen stuff when it comes to dystopian cinema, but the unusual element of the train makes all the difference, if you're willing to accept this rather bizarre concept.
'Bizarre' is exactly right to describe Bong's approach to Snowpiercer, if not to his whole oeuvre. With The Host, the Korean director delivered a monster-on-a-rampage movie unlike any other, while his celebrated but twisted thriller Memories of Murder firmly rooted him as a student of and a commentator on the human capacity for violence. Snowpiercer fits right into his resumé and stylistically reveals him to have auteur tendencies. The cruel and the weird go hand in hand in his clash of classes. Bong takes his time to explore the train and its hierarchy, where the mysterious designer and machinist of the vehicle,Wilford, is given divine status by those he keeps alive. As the desperate rebels who want to put an end to this dictatorship slowly but surely work their way to the front of the train, Bong keeps surprising us as much as his protagonists with each new compartment they enter. But, applying a certain video game logic to the narrative, each discovery also comes with new dangers, both physically and in terms of resolve of standing united against a common foe, as Curtis moves ever closer to the 'end boss' Wilford, and upon meeting him finds out the true machinations of the powers-that-be.
Bong tells his strange tale of revolution through an international ensemble of actors, which underscores the thought that humanity has collectively 'taken the same train' in the destruction of their habitat and must deal with it accordingly or perish as a whole. You'd be inclined to think of Evans as a typical all-American hero leading the quest for freedom, but you'd be much mistaken, as the character carries a particularly sordid past that would definitely write him off as such. The same is true for Jamie Bell, apparently his hotheaded sidekick, whose relationship with his older brother-in-arms is much more disturbing than you would at first glance suspect. Bong surprises you as much with the twisted interrelations between his protagonists as with the various situations they encounter. John Hurt seemingly plays an archetypal wise old man as he has done on many prior occasions, but what we come to know about him in the course of the film again subverts expectations, as do the motives of the apparently unstable demolitions expert/drug addict Kang-ho Song (a Bong regular) and his clairvoyant daughter. The audience is being toyed with in their mental perception of “the good guys” on a similar note as it is in regards to the physical appearance of the leading baddie, minister Mason, played by an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton in an outrageous costume and false teeth. Nevertheless, the cast succeeds in relaying the fact this class conflict isn't as black and white as you would initially believe, although with such morally colourful characters, it makes you wonder with whom Bong wants you to identify (if anyone): the line between good and bad characters is indeed as thin as the rails that keep their train going.
Even more colourful is Bong's sense of style. Clearly a confined space, Bong makes good use of that fact to show off his train in delightfully flexible cinematography and a colour scheme to match. Starting off with the plight of the tormented oppressed, he sticks with an abundance of brown tones – supplying a nearly monochromatic touch – and cramped, crowded spaces for the first hour, before he lets in the light and dazzles both the revolutionaries and the audience with the rich and vibrant world of the oppressors, filled with all kinds of unexpected wonders. A huge vegetable garden, a giant aquarium walkthrough (complete with manta rays), a classroom car; we're confronted with whatever we expect the least, and Bong has it all make appropriate sense. Which is not to say that he doesn't throw us off-guard at times, also in terms of the flow of the narrative. Bong makes use of the occasional off-beat, even absurdist moment that only adds to his wonderfully weird train, but continues to suggest the director's dark predilections. A brutal showdown between the tyranny's minions and the insurgents is postponed by a New Year celebration before the carnage ensues, while an overly cheerful classroom scene explodes in a bloody shootout, the presence of children notwithstanding. Not the type of thing you'd find in the more generic American dystopian flicks, nor is the movie's big revelation near the end (think The Matrix Reloaded, but without sequel aspirations). The climax however does leave some room for hope, which feels out of place and hints at studio interference, most likely from the American investors (as the film is a Korean/American/French/Czech co-production). As for the action scenes, Snowpiercer contains many and they are all sufficiently choreographed to make you bite into their mayhem, despite the oddities Bong throws at you along the way. Unfortunately many visual effects shots of the white world outside prove less than stellar and more than a little bit digital, making you wish Bong would stick more to the train, which is where nearly all of the excitement happens anyway.
Snowpiercer's premise and the logistics of its world might be hard to accept at first, but Bong makes it work. Plus, he keeps surprising you, confronting you with your own expectations, fed by having seen mostly American takes on the conflict between good and evil in dystopian societies. If you accept Bong's craziness and unwillingness to adhere to orthodox storytelling, Snowpiercer proves quite an intriguing ride, though admittedly not everyone will be able to stay on board for this one, violent, disturbing and thoroughly messed up as it deservedly can be called.