Jun 25, 2014
The long awaited first foray of director's Bong Joon-Ho (The Host, Mother, Memories of Murder) into big budget filmmaking is here, and it is a rather interesting mixed bag. That Bong is gifted is clearly in evidence in this adaptation of a French graphic novel that depicts a post-apocalyptic Earth where the sole remaining humans are stuck in a very long train that is circling the globe. It is 2031 and because of our plundering of the environment, the Earth has been frozen and nothing can survive outside the train. This train is basically a spot-on metaphor for the difference between coach and first class in current commercial aviation and, more essentially, for the way we live now, with the poors stuck all the way in the back in dire oppression, while the one percent rides in comfort and luxury in the front, controlling everything and sharing nothing. In between, there are cars of armed goons protecting the wealthy from the hoi polloi. There are other fun details in the other cars that I won't disclose here, but as a metaphor, it is perfect for what goes on today. The downtrodden in the back want to get to the front. The one percent in the front will do anything in their power to keep them in the back. Life on Earth.
As fanboy action movies go, this is a darker tale than usual, and there are a couple of twists at the end that are anathema to the heroic tropes that are a staple of the genre. But, and this is a very big but, although the enormous skill and imagination of Bong are in full force, what made him such an exciting writer-director is missing in this film. I remember seeing The Host and being totally exhilarated by his mischievousness. At first it wasn't clear what exactly we were witnessing. A cheesy monster film with a giant fish that looked like a mean version of Charlie the Tuna, The Host was also a hilarious Korean social satire. The protagonists were a bunch of losers, and Bong's balancing act between mischief and real terror was a fresh, original marvel to behold. Mother, a darkly funny, harrowing movie about a monster mom, was also sharply satirical and critical of Korean society, full of mordant detail. This incisive playfulness, his assured handling of several dissonant tones is what makes Bong one of the best directors working today, yet his mischievousness is sadly missing from this film.
It is not altogether gone, harnessed by some mordant visuals, and in particular by the amazing Tilda Swinton, who plays Mason, the envoy between Mr. Wilford, the owner of the train, and the masses. She is spectacular, and seems to be the only actor who is truly alive for the first half of the film. She brings her considerable chops to portray the sum of all ass-kissing bureaucrats, stern but morally dubious headmasters, the sum of all of those who do the dirty work for the more powerful. She is over the top, and hilarious. At times I thought she was channeling Emma Thompson at her most prissy, at times she reminded me of Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks, but at the Q&A after the film, Bong revealed that Swinton was channeling Margaret Thatcher. So that's who that was! Tilda Swinton rules, bless her irreverent, mirthful soul.
Because Snowpiercer takes place in a sci-fi world (the production design and special effects are awesome) a lot of the day to day human observation in which Bong excels is sacrificed in the name of keeping the giant machinery of the metaphor rolling. There are enormous holes in the story (screenplay by Bong and Kelly Masterson). A lot of it doesn't make sense. I never understood why the rich needed the poor, and that is just one of many headscratchers. To Bong's credit, I was able to suspend my disbelief because of the forward momentum of the story, and because he unleashes wonderful actors like little bonbons, one after the other.
I suspect that the exigencies of marketing may have played a role in the script. There are some cringe worthy lines from Curtis, the hero (Chris Evans, doing his best and still managing to be uninteresting) about his inability to be a leader. He repeats them over and over, and we finally learn why he thinks he cannot lead (another tired antihero trope that needs to be put out to pasture) in a convoluted speech at the end where he tells us everything that happened to him in the past. I cannot help but think this sounds like something added after focus groups. The result is that we don't care, because we didn't see it. Now, we don't necessarily need to see it, as it is a gruesome tale, but when the biggest twists are in the form of exposition at the end, the revelations sink as we never once saw any tension, or ambiguity at the beginning that may startle us emotionally. Tragic things happen, but they don't really connect, perhaps because the characters exist to service the concept, and as hard as the actors work, it's hard to care for them. Actors like Octavia Spencer and Jamie Bell are excellent, but are swallowed by the enormity of the mayhem and the lack of clarity in the story. Ironically, the giant engine of the plot seems to be as indifferent to the plight and nature of the characters as the giant engine of the train. This movie seems devoid of real emotion.
There are long, sharply staged, extremely violent, cartoonish fight sequences, but I was not truly excited and amazed until the point in which the rebels finally burst into business class, so to speak. That is the really fun part. It is visually stunning and it deploys more of Bong's sense of humor. But in general, the exhilaration comes more from the set decor and the special effects rather than from keenly observed truths. Sadly, many potentially rich nuances of the characters' experience fall by the wayside.
This is a very ambitious movie, and as action movies go, far less inane and hypocritical than average, with a great subversive metaphor and a wonderfully ambivalent ending that somehow manage to survive an ideologically confusing exposition. I'd still rather get my kicks from a cheesy giant fish, a family of losers, a poisonous mother, or a hapless policeman, those fascinating people in Bong's down-to-Earth universe, than from high concept bells and whistles.