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Editor's Note: Snowpiercer is playing at Ithaca's Cinemapolis weekdays at 4:20, 6:50 and 9:20 p.m. and on weekends at 1:50, 4:20, 6:50 and 9:20 p.m. There are also two extra showings on Thursday.
“If it is true, as the German director Werner Herzog believes, that we live in an age starved of new images, then Dark City is a film to nourish us.”
That is an excerpt from Roger Ebert’s famous review of Dark City, a 1998 sci-fi thriller that found an audience and cultish interest in much part due to his rave. It’s a nutty movie that I doubt anyone, Roger included, thinks is “perfect,” but in that same breath I doubt anyone regrets watching it, for its style and mood and partially realized ambition.
Snowpiercer, the first English language film from Korean director Bong Joon-ho, has problems any viewer will spot — namely, stilted dialogue and an ungainly, chatty climax. However, I would like to approach this film as Roger did Dark City: with all matters of lavish praise, shortcomings be damned. Because, quite frankly, Snowpiercer is why we leave our homes and pay money to sit in a dark room with a bunch of strangers. Snowpiercer is here to nourish us.
Let me level with you: I was on the verge of tears at multiple points throughout this film, and not because things got sad. These almost-breakdowns actually hit me during the fight scenes. With cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo, Bong has shot some of the most awe-inspiring action I have ever seen. Zooms, Steadicams and ceiling-mounted dollies have all appeared in countless genre films, and lord knows CGI has as well, but Bong’s style here combines all these elements and somehow becomes unforgettable, palpable, substantial. Perhaps it’s his disciplined use of natural light, like when a child runs through a grungy corridor holding a flickering torch, or the side-scrolling video game aesthetic that follows our hero Curtis Everett (Chris Evans, caked in dirt and far from his pretty Captain America self) in profile as he hacks through hordes of terrifying psychopathic guards.
But if arcade games trivialize violence and more ambitious 21st century shooters like BioShock — a clear influence, given its far-left politics and self-contained setting — fall short by foregrounding thrills and upgrades over the violence its scripted cutscenes claim to indict (see here: ludonarrative dissonance), then Snowpiercer has its cake and eats it, too. By that, I mean this film first proposes its violence as a social necessity, given the abysmal conditions in which our main characters live. After a chemical agent aimed at impeding global warming instead freezes the world over and wipes out the human race, the survivors live aboard Snowpiercer, an always-moving, self-sustainable bullet train with a rigid class system in place. Holed in the windowless rear car with all the amenities of a Dachau barracks, Curtis leads a gang of post-apocalyptic proletariat — including a father figure (John Hurt), a mother figure (Octavia Spencer) and an overzealous brother figure (Jamie Bell) — to overtake the rest of the train, which increases in luxury, and grotesquery, as they make their way to the front.
Those first blows against the powers that be could not arrive sooner, for the downtrodden, and the audience by proxy, suffer through gross punishments from the guards and nonsense speeches from Minister Mason. Tilda Swinton lampoons Margaret Thatcher as a buck-toothed tyrant who is yellower than a chicken when under duress, and if Swinton’s performance does not convince you she is our greatest living actor than you will least accept she steals scenes like no other. Her cartoon authority only makes it easier to root for those sincere underdogs seeking equality, and the initial revolt plays like an exhilarating high-tech, martial arts update to Gillo Pontecorvo’s immortal The Battle of Algiers. Like that Marxist war film, Snowpiercer believes in and deplores class struggle, but more than that does this film indict violence as a means for positive change.
Now, it may sound like I am shooting myself in the foot by saying this film “indicts violence” when I already called its action “awe-inspiring” and “exhilarating.” Here we stumble into that age-old “Do anti-war films exist?” debate first raised by François Truffaut, who said, “to show something is to ennoble it,” in response to Battle of Algiers. For an action film, Snowpiercer takes a rare political stand with its socialist sympathies, which is both noble, in my view, and ennobling, pretty much objectively, for the main characters at the expense of the upper-class antagonists.
Yet this script — written by Bong and Kelly Masterson and adapted from the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige — throws tough choices at Curtis and lets us watch him almost always pursue the more controversial path. A lot of good people die: many at the hands of an unstoppable enforcer (Vlad Ivanov) whose gait and suit would not look out of place roaming the halls of Goldman Sachs; many more perish from Curtis’s dogmatic, bloodthirsty leadership. The character of Curtis is curiously half-baked, somewhere in between an ascetic, existential lifelessness and backstory-heavy tragic figure you would find in your typical Hollywood picture. This obviously flawed screenplay loses steam at the end when Bong’s kinetic audiovisual brilliance makes not one but two full stops to let Exposition & Explainin’ barge on through. It fails to commit to the abstraction seen and felt in Apocalypse Now, which also followed a man’s trek toward that proverbial “heart of darkness.”
But Curtis at least remains a fascinating enigma, not easily condemned or cleanly praised, an orphan in a world of blockbuster tropes and art film nuance. The camera frames his face in tight close-up and the soundtrack hushes to only his breath as he swings his ax and you are not sure if he’s a frightened hero or callous bastard in the midst of all this carnage. His elusive definition in many ways (unwittingly) mirrors the post-production struggles imposed on Bong by distributor Harvey Weinstein, round $18 billion in that eternal match between art and commerce.
If Snowpiercer leaves us with any coherent commentary on the violence it so dazzlingly depicts, it concerns complacency. The most interesting character in the film is Namgoong (Song Kang-ho, from Bong’s excellent Memories of Murder), an engineer who unlocks the train’s locks in exchange for Kronol, an addictive suppressant, and smokes a cigarette as cool as Bogart in the ’40s. On second viewing I will pay closer attention to Namgoong and his daughter, Yona (Go Ah-sung), for their druggy daze proves to be more than useless, as later developments show. In fact, the middle act, when we start seeing the garish amenities of the train’s wealthy, pivots around the allure and harm of complacency to those with a lower station in life, and we realize that Namgoong’s ultimate strategy amounts to something like guerrilla warfare. Whether you see him as a subversive genius or drug-ravaged madman will color your overarching opinion of the film, and say a bit or two about whether you see things as half full or, you know, not.
For now, I am going to say that Snowpiercer is a brutally cynical movie that answers the implicit question beneath our culture’s current fascination with post-apocalyptic fiction: What does the apocalypse look like after it already happened? How do we finally, absolutely do ourselves in? Apparently answering this question also involves raising a lot of others about class, violence and injustice along the way, but the priority, it seems, for Bong Joon-ho, is to give us something we’ve never seen before — something beautiful, ineffable and truly cinematic — only to take it all away.