06 July, 2014

It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry

Lord I Believe I'm Freezin' to Die
A Kind of Review of Snowpiercer (2014)

After a long and unnecessary battle with theWeinstein Company, Snowpiercer has finally been allowed to come out in the States, uncut and uncompromised. In its current state, it is a movie that was certainly worth fighting for. It is also a movie that is well worth the wait.

Directed by Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Mother), Snowpiercer tells the tale of the last remnants of humanity. Broken into a rigid class system, those to the rear of the train are brutalized and exploited at the leisure of those in the front of the train, who get to enjoy the pleasures of the eponymous train's "sacred" perpetual motion engine. As you can imagine, things come to a head rather quickly.

From there the movie follows Curtis (Chris Evans) and his fellow revolutionaries (and hangers on) through the absurd, yet grimly down-to-earth cars of the Snowpiercer. From there we get a kaleidoscopic view of a species on the edge. We see it at its best, its worst, and at every odd stage in between. More importantly, we also get to see one of the best rides of the year so far.


If you hadn't noticed, Snowpiercer has one of the best ensemble casts this side of Days of Future Past (or the next Christopher Nolan movie).

If I start talking about the cast, I'll be here all day, so I'll try to be brief. So, real quick, remember when Chris Evans was a joke? Like, before Captain America, he was on his way out? I mean, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (always with the rise, how come nothing ever ascends? Or flight? Things used to take flight all the time) and, boy howdy, that's a terrible film. If things hadn't gone the way they had-- if things were just slightly differently, he would have disappeared, unwanted and unloved onto the heap of other handsome white action heroes like a Ryan Reynolds or a Taylor Kitsch. Instead he can probably stand slightly behind Matthew McConaughey and maybe adjacent to Channing Tatum making us feel slightly stupid for writing them off.

As with the rest of the film, everybody comports themselves wonderfully. From Octavia Spencer as a tortured mother turned soldier to Tilda Swinton trying her best to act through more prosthetics than she had in The Grand Budapest Hotel to John Hurt who is, as you may well know, John fucking Hurt..

The only weak link that I can think of is Jamie Bell's accent. And I don't mean his acting or the quality of the accent, I mean, the actual accent. Why is it there? How did he get it? Nobody else around seems to be Irish. Why is he Irish? What gives? Did John Hurt imprint on him? Maybe he got it from the same post-apocalyptic accent store that the military guy from Doomsday got his Scottish accent.

The stand out is an actor that should be familiar to anyone who has watched a Korean film before because he is literally in every Korean film ever made. That man is, of course Song Kang-ho, star of The Host, Thirst, JSA, and, again, every other Korean film ever made.

While everyone else is running around, bleeding over things, Kang-ho sits confidentially in the background, either feverishly getting high or redefining how to look cool while smoking a cigarette. If you're a foreign film nerd you get the pleasure of seeing him paired with some of the most interesting Western actors around.

Even the bit roles of the film are well done. From the wordless henchman played by (name) to the cultishly cute school teacher played by Alison Pill to Ed Harris' who plays the man at the front of the train like a combination between the Great Oz and Lucifer. It is one more example of how much care and attention was given to the film.


What holds the film together is its ability to weave together several different kinds of genres and several different characters and idea and molds them into a single, wonderful product.

In the first half of the film, Curtis and his revolutionaries are pitted against a train car full of masked butchers. It's a scene with a lot of things going on in it. First and foremost, it takes Tilda Swinton's dentured and pig-nosed visage and manages to put it amidst a gang of hooded butchers and it seems like the natural, normal choice. It then manages to address the silliness of the train's traditions with utter carnage. And in all this, a spectacular action sequence is taking place. It is the film in microcosm and a wonderful sequence in a film overrun with wonderful sequences.

Another strength is that, like the train, it continually moves forward. We aren't ever bogged down in needless narration or we're left to think about what it all means. It plows forward. Through action, through dialogue, through characters. It moves. It moves at such a clip that the weaker moments of the movie are flattened by the momentum.

And there are moments in Snowpiercer where it threatens (you ready for this?) go off the rails. There's a distinct moment about half of the way through where it threatens to turn into a French film, where suddenly, Curtis and his cadre are going to be seduced by the decadence of the bourgeoisie*, that we're going to somehow end up with a Lois Bunuel film, but with more hatchet-based violence. Thankfully, it never tips over into full-blown satire. It's nice to see considering the the inexplicable shifts in tone of The Host.

The Host is a fine movie. It's a lot of fun and it's a kind of entry level foreign film that something like Wild Strawberries simply cannot be. It's more Jaws than it is The Seventh Seal, so maybe thinking about it critically is slightly missing the point, but, man, that film takes some weird turns. By the end of the film most of the principle cast dead (which includes an old man and a child). At the very end we're then left with a couple of characters who are, at best, catastrophically traumatized, but we're meant to believe it's a happy ending. On Christmas. In a kind of hobo lean-to/snack shack.  It's literally as baffling as I just stated.
Snowpiercer has none of these shortcomings. It's a movie that doesn't drag and it doesn't shoot off into any weird directions. It plows forward, working action, absurdist satire, petulent humor, high science fiction concepts, and a kind of gritty realism into a single working piece of machinery. It's violent. It's funny. It's smart. It's emotionally touching. Snowpiercer is the perfect example of a film that can have its cake and eat it too.


As I said above, this is a violent movie (which should come as little surprise if you're familiar with "extreme cinema"). As many ideas about society and class and destiny as there are on display, it's also about scrappy revolutionaries killing people with axes. It's about giving these people a reason to act and it's about us enjoying them move forward car by car. What I'm saying is that it's a smart movie that is also pretty awesome.

And it doesn't waste your time getting you there. It's odd that the Weinsteins wanted to cut the film, because I have no idea what they'd cut. A guy loses an arm to frost in the first twenty minutes of the movie.

From the very first moments of the film, you hate the upper class. You hate the system they've set up. You hate Wilford. You hate everything about this world and you just want people to be happy and you want certain other people to see the business end of a shank.

As with the humor and the drama in the film, Joon-ho doesn't ever lose control. The film's point of view never turns into mere satire and the violence never tips over into fantasy. Or into purience. It's as brutal and as intense as it needs to be to excite you, but to also make you feel a little bit sick. It's a fine act to balance and, once again Joon-ho nails it.

You believe this conflict just like you believe the characters, just like you believe that there's a magic bullet train shooting through the frozen future. It's visceral, it's believable, and it's a whole lot of fun, and that's kind of what movies should be, right?


Besides the odd moment where the film threatens to careen into the fantastic, the film has a few other flaws. They aren't major, but they're there, whipping by us as we watch the movie.

As in Days of Future Past, the most obvious shortcoming of the film are in its visual effects. While much of the special effects and computer effect go unnoticed, the exterior shots of the film look less like a frozen wasteland than they the Uncanny Valley after a blizzard.

What's more is that they aren't just iffy CGI shots, they're iffy in a weird way. They somehow look like computer generated miniatures. Meaning they somehow look both fake and small. The wonky visual effects are even more apparent when you consider how fully realized the rest of the film is. Unlike Days of Future Past, I at least understand why the CGI doesn't look great.

Then there's the woman in yellow. She's dubbed, right? Like, terribly? Right? Am I crazy?


Go see Snowpiercer. Show the braintrust in charge of the Weinstein Company-- and the rest of the goons running Hollywood-- that America wants more than dumb, ugly schlock. Show them that we like intelligent, well made science fiction films. Show them that we don't need any more fucking robots.

What is more is you should see Snowpiercer because it's an excellent film.

It's international in the way that David Lean movies are international. Or Akira Kurosawa movies are international. The creators of the film set out to make a particular kind of movie about a particular subject. It isn't a perfect movie and there are some truly harrowing parts in it, parts that in the hands of a lesser director would come off as crass. Instead, it's one more example of the fact that this film works. You should see it because good art, made well deserves to be seen.

But don't just take my word for it. It's coming to VOD on Friday.

*It is about much more than the corruption of the underclass or the compromising of a bloody revolution (we have Bioshock Infinite for that).