Roadwarrior meets Oldboy on Runaway Train for some Matrix philosophy
Far from flawless, Snowpiercer is still one hell of an impressive sci-fi flick, it's audacious ambition alone likely earning it the honorary accolade of almost being an outright masterpiece.Wearing its sociopolitical allegories on its sleeve and trading equally in brutal-but-stylishly-inventive fight sequences and philosophical questions of morality, mortality, humanity, class structure and the very survival of the human race (and, indeed, whether or not that is even important in the grand scale of The Planet), the film seeks to put some thought back into the standard dumbed-down blockbuster fare. Metaphors steeped in metaphors, rich symbolism – it may grate with some, but, for the most part, it works. And whatever doesn't quite work, whatever doesn't quite gel, gets largely smoothed-over by the unusual side-scrolling videogame style of the piece and the strong, and strangely atypical, post-apocalyptic setting.With a committed cast, and some standout performances – not least from a very un-Captain America Chris Evans – the dialogue and drama still carries evident traces of its distinctly pulpy comic book roots, taking a somewhat unduly heavy-handed approach to political commentary and philosophical musings, but the end result is still a very welcome, thought-provoking sci-fi tale which may not quite deliver on the promise of its unquestionably ambitious vision, but indisputably deserves credit for taking a damn good shot at it. Whether it’s the imagery, the action, the brutality, or the philosophy that stays with you after the credits, Snowpiercer remains as unforgettable as it is unmissable.
In a post-apocalyptic future setting, mankind’s desperate answer to global warming sees the planet encased in ice, with the last few thousand survivors trapped aboard a huge, advanced, supposedly impregnable train operating using some kind of variation on a perpetual motion machine, which can theoretically run indefinitely. With a slew of train-jumping, 'ticket'-less passengers herded like cattle into the last few carts, and kept in check by heavily armed soldiers working to protect those living in the higher, paid-for carriages at all costs, a revolution is inevitable, and it falls upon reluctant freedom-fighter Curtis to rally the men and fight all the way to the heart of the train.
A dystopic Orwellian future offers an atmospheric backdrop to this representation of society in a microcosm.
Loosely adapted – indeed, taking little more than the basic premise of a few desperate survivors of a frozen ice age fighting their way through the carriages of a hi-tech train, and thus through the echelons of society – from the French graphic novel series, Le Transperceneige, the production was ignited by acclaimed South Korean filmmakers Boon Joon-ho (The Host, Mother) and Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Vengeance Trilogy, Thirst). With the latter acting as Producer, and the former taking Writer/Director duties, the film – whilst ostensibly a joint production – is far more South Korean in style, sentiment and structure, than it is American.
Indeed, besides the English language dominance (some of the dialogue is in Korean, courtesy of the Korean stars – Thirst’s star, the phenomenal Song Kang-ho, and his The Host co-star, Go Ah-sung), the presence of so many familiar US/UK actors (Evans, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Ed Harris, Octavia Spencer, Alison Pill, Ewan Bremner), and perhaps the sheer scale of the ambitious sci-fi piece – although post-production was carried out in South Korea too, complete with some occasionally somewhat outdated effects work – this is a far more overtly South Korean production, further evident perhaps in the way it has been treated – or mistreated – on release.
Although it has been out for almost a year in South Korea – and has become one of their highest-grossing films, earning almost $60 Million at the Box Office there, and over $80 Million thus far in worldwide revenue – it has been languishing at the doorsteps of Harvey Weinstein ever since he bought the rights for Stateside distribution. Eventually, after protracted wrangling with Weinstein – who wanted the film to be cut by 20 minutes to be more of a traditional action-thriller, and given a voice-over to allow the populace of Austen, Texas to better understand the film (I kid you not!) – director Bong Joon-ho won his victory, although it was a pyrrhic one at best, as, in return, Weinstein stated that he would only give the film a limited release to test the waters. So, in the same weekend that Transformers 4 opened in four thousand theatres, Snowpiercer opened in... eight.
Making a deal with the devil, the director signed with a distribution mogul who seems determined to actually prevent you seeing it.
Having seen the movie, I can guess what they likely wanted to remove, and, if they had, it would have essentially stripped the dark heart and shattered soul from the narrative (think: removing all controversial aspects of Faye Dunaway's character in Chinatown, and you get a clue as to how damaging this would be across the entire movie), sapping a considerably amount of power from the final act in the process. The trouble is that Hollywood isn’t always that keen on films which have memorable action scenes in them but which aren’t dominated – and thus easily defined – by action, and which are instead reliant upon more subtle things like powerful dialogue moments to offer substance and satisfaction. Look at the structure of Oldboy, for example, which sports flashes of superior action, but which doesn’t rely upon it to deliver its hammer-blow ending. Snowpiercer similarly seeks to offer more than just a ‘thrill ride’, but a South Korean-styled thought-provoking dystopian sci-fi thriller must be just about one of the hardest films that anybody has ever tried to pigeon-hole.
Blending its Mad Max 2 meets Runaway Train setting with a kind of Bruce Lee Game of Death vibe as the characters forge their path from carriage to carriage, unlocking secrets, having their preconceptions shaken up violently, and meeting increasingly tough enemies along the way, the film certainly does boast some exceptional action set-pieces, almost always not involving guns. Indeed the “fish” sequence alone may well go down in film history as a grand-scale Oldboy-esque bout of unexpected horror-infused-action.
Following (or, technically, pre-dating) the excellent job done with arguably the best (original) blockbuster of the year, Cruise's Edge of Tomorrow, Snowpiercer reminds us once again that video-game-style films can work, although probably only if they're not based on an actual game. The side-scrolling action; the "level" design of the carriages - often introduced with marvellous audiovisual effect, with slowed-down visuals and ramped-up score engulfing you in the different realms - as well as the save-point nature of the action, all being reminiscent of the best of what games can offer, only delivered here with a story and script to back it up. The sci-fi concepts too are superb, not just in terms of both those variable carriage sets and the tense ensuing set-pieces that take place in each one, but also in terms of philosophical musings.
Gliding from survival horror to epic sci-fi to claustrophobic actioner, this is the best cross-genre blend since Brotherhood of the Wolf.
Sure, some might shake their heads at the heavy-handed socio-political commentary. The train carriages alone represent different social strata in our class structure, with each one further encompassing contemplative, daring future-visualisations of key aspects in society: the education system, the military, the government, healthcare, agriculture, food, and even bars and clubs. As the desperate many seek to reach the elusive, decadent 1%-ers in a blatant Elysium-style, and the whole train becomes one big, self-sustaining eco-system, the commentary comes full-circle and threatens to swallow itself – but the multi-level approach to layers upon layers of symbolism will almost certainly strike you as more engaging than effusive. Still, there are hints of ‘bad Matrix’ philosophy, as found in the Wachowski’s sequels, with characters here threatening to ‘do an Architect’ and start spouting forth until you just want to hit them (Tilda Swinton’s Thatcherite takes a little getting used to, even though it's a daring performance).
But thankfully Snowpiercer largely stays on the right side of this kind of pretentious rambling, instead giving us pause for thought about its parallels with human history; the train a microcosmic representation of the world right now, a self-sustaining ecosystem, but one which is also reliant upon the factors that contribute towards that perpetual balance. Poverty, famine, war, class struggle, social divide, oppression... There’s clearly a very 1984 feel to this film: being buried in Propaganda, shepherded like cattle, and punished by a totalitarian regime, and these bleak undertones pervade the piece, lending further weight to the ensuing commentary.
Whatever you take from the film, it certainly has a great deal to offer. It’s an audacious, ambitious project which requires – demands – your absolute attention, and rewards it with style and substance; sci-fi smarts and spectacular side-scrolling action. Wherever you get to see it, however you get to see it – the important thing is that you must see it.
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