Snowpiercer (2013) - From writer / director Joon-ho Bong who is known for The Host (2006) and Mother (2009); he is a writer and director who has proved to have chops. Watching this film at the Brattle Theater in historic Harvard Square this viewer was involved but tepid in losing himself in the film. It could be the two teen boy sitting behind me who could not help but to comment each time something stretching the bounds of logic happened on screen. It could have been the way Joon-ho Bong keeps the audience off kilter by mixing violence with bits of humor. It could have been the inevitability of the story. It gives viewers an allegory attempting a big message of class struggle with violence and humor underwhelms in the end. Snowpiercer comes four years after his last film, so plenty of time has been spent getting this film together. The futuristic fantasy of the poor rising up to fight free of their allotted station in life seems a well worn track. Working for the first time with English speaking actors, and partnering with the Harvey Weinstein Company for US distribution this was a new experience for Joon-ho Bong and he has gone out of his way in interviews to say that the cut the American audiences are seeing is the one he wants them to see.
Ed Harris) who created a track around the world in which it takes one year to complete a loop. Seen as crazy at the time of its building this self perpetuating, self contained ecosystem would end up being the last salvation for mankind. When the nations of the world attempt to cool the atmosphere with a revolutionary chemical. A way to fight global warming not through elimination of its causes but through new science, they accidentally freeze the planet. All life becomes extinct except for the travelers on the Snowpiercer. The wealthy who could afford the ticket live in luxury in the front of the train and the last refugees of the great freeze who fought their way onto the rear live in poverty. Bashing the audience over the head with the classes could be scene as overkill or is the director just creating the contrast needed to give the audience stakes?
In a future world there exists a train Snowpiercer, the vision of Wilford (
Starring Chris Evan as Curtis, a reluctant revolutionary with a dark past who is mentored to leadership by Gilliam (John Hurt) too old to lead himself but not too old to move a younger man forward. Living at the rear of the train, the Snowpiercer, they are the lowest of the low. A caste who survive on protein bars (What are those bars made from?) and are subjugated to humiliations by the security forces. They are told all people have their lot in life and their lot is poverty in the last couple cars of this self contained ecosystem endlessly traversing the world. They are ruthlessly dealt with if they step out of line like when their children are taken never to be seen again. They are just the people who have to rise up and overthrow the order of things. Along the way though is an amazingly violent and trippy adventure through the train. Thinking about the setup as an allegory of how the wealthiest of the world want to secure their place by perpetually keeping the rest of us down seems the obvious idea. Controlling the security forces, the media, the food and water puts the poor in a place where they feel powerless to change things. It is the need for that change in the hearts of the characters on those last cars that drive the story. The cynical twist at the end was expected considering the structure of this film but it is the journey to the front of the train where the real value of this film lies.
It seemed that there are nods to other films in this movie. It could be that the archetype of the story brings these thoughts, but the visual similarities and class absurdity seems like more than coincidence The class struggle has been done before and there seems to be an amazing nod to one of this writers favorite film "Brazil". Not only is the wise man Gilliam named possibly for Terry Gilliam writer/director of that film but the comical portrayal of Tilda Swinton as Mason seems to be channeling the energy of Gilliam's work. As we traverse the train through violence and mayhem we are thrown for a loop as suddenly the dirty revolutionaries come face to face with the opulence of the upper classes. Particularly noteworthy is the scene in the school car where the children of the wealthy are indoctrinated into the cult of Wilford. From the lessons to the patriotic songs lead beautifully by Teacher (Alison Pill) to the hilarious propaganda video, to the sudden stupendous turn to violence, it all seeps with the influence of Brazil.
The juxtaposition between the scenes of violent struggle and the lavish world of the upper classes is one of the strengths of the film. Designed to have the viewer easily side with the poor and Curtis with his desire to have his revolution reach the engine car, where all other attempts have failed. It does just that with brutal opposition all the way. Complicating the picture is the need for the key master, the man who designed many of the doors and locks, Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song). He has become a drug addict and can be bribed to get the revolutionaries into each car on their way to the front. He secretly has his own agenda for himself and his companion Yona (Ah-sung Ko) that is not revealed until the climax of the film. "The Matrix" feel at times is a bit overwhelming especially when they reach the engine room and we have the all too flat Ed Harris as Wilford talking things out with Curtis. Seems just like the scene where Neo meets the Architect and is cajoled to make a deal with the devil so to speak. Sometimes the best laid plans can go wrong because of the personal desires of just one of the players. Is it a good thing or should we expect such things.
It is a singular mission that the poor have, too reach the engine room, to change the order of things. The influence and power of the ruling class first use force and then use bribery and if that does not work will again use force is a known technique through the history of class struggle. The end of this film like Ed Harris's performance is something that I could not understand completely. Flat and affect-less it is a disappointment after sharing the struggle that came before it. The final scenes are probably the most fantastical and meaningless of the entire film. A shame to have been barreling forward, full throttle on this ride only to have it come to the screeching halt it did. Having discussed the ending with others I could not come up with what would have been a better ending, simply because the plot sort of paints itself into a corner. The last image though was pretty ridiculous and off putting. I guess that this film is a recommend. There is something interesting and inventive on the journey this film takes the viewer on. It can't be a strong recommendation with that ending but still there is some value in the trip.