Out of all the reviews I have to make to cover 2014, the idea of trying as hard as I can to be objective with Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer was the most discouragingly daunting task. It really is. When you come across a film you absolutely love endlessly, despite its faults, it’s going to be hard to state its problems without just going “Oh, but it doesn’t matter.” It’s why I really didn’t write a review when I first watched it in June. I just sat on my bed saying “Oh no, what have I done?”, then grabbed a friend, took her to the theater to watch it and wanted to see if I was just blinded by my adoration.
I suppose the primary reason, the biggest getaway that Snowpiercer has as a movie is out of how completely wild and off the hinges it presents itself as a concept. I mean, it’s a movie about a train running nonstop through a new ice age in perpetual motion. There is absolutely nothing about that idea that wouldn’t exactly attract a sane person immediately, but crazy is exactly what Bong Joon-ho does best – from his political family monster film The Host to semi-black comedy semi-nihilistic buddy cop police procedural Memories of Murder. Perhaps his least craziest film is Mother, but we ain’t here to talk about the entirety of Bong Joon-ho’s career stylings, or we’d be here for a long while. We’re just going to take into consideration the fact that Bong’s portfolio has constantly bet on the fact that he can juggle in as many possible concepts and facets into one coherent movie and, for the most part, he has almost always proven himself able to pull it off. It’s a gift. Not many directors get away with that.
Snowpiercer has possibly the most things banking against it because of how ludicrous its concept is. So ludicrous to the point that if you look too much into the minutia of the details, you probably weren’t tuned into the concept to begin with and, honestly, you probably aren’t wrong not to like the movie.
But me, I find just so much to love about Snowpiercer.
Anyway, the ludicrous plot, based on the graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette – Let me indulge you and hope you stick around – The world has been brought into an ice age, like I mentioned. There is a non-stop train with the last survivors of the world in it, like I mentioned. Now, the survivors and their cars are divided into a crude class-based system and the very lowest of the low are pushed all the way to the back of the train living in horrible decrepit conditions, and the main honchos of the train in the front – namely the creator and leader of the train, Wilfred.
Eventually, the people in the back of the train have had enough and so, led by Curtis (Chris Evans) and masterminded by Gilliam (John Hurt), they begin their own revolution on the train, pushing their way to the front with one of the spokespersons for Wilfred, Mason (Tilda Swinton), as a hostage and the inventor of the security design, Namgoong Minsu (Bong Joon-ho) in tow.
Still with me on this? Ok, good.
You do not need to go at all far to know what the hell the movie is supposed to ideally be a symbol for. Talkin’ bout a revolution, son. The French Revolution is the most ideal platform to believe it represents, especially considering the source novel is French, but I have also heard belief that the movie was representative of the 1% vs. 99% or the Battleship Potemkin mutiny. So, y’know, it’s probably flexible to figure what revolution you want to apply to the movie. But what I love most about the movie is that it doesn’t try to be deep about this.
Subtlety is not on Snowpiercer‘s mind. Especially considering how much it wants to be. It is an action film, a science-fiction film, a gallery-like romp through environments, a spiritual journey, and obviously a political allegory. It hits all of these things head-on and long enough to actually qualify into each genre. It’s pretty impressive considering its the same sort of multi-tasking that a movie like Sabotage tries to do and fails at.
I’m sure the cast is partly there to lend a bigger air of gravitas to the film. In addition to the actors I named, Jamie Bell, Allison Pill, Octavia Spencer, Ko Ah-sung, and Ewan Bremmer all have notable roles around the film – each with distinct personalities that are one-note but enough to tell them apart. The characters within the back of the train feel particularly lived-in, while Swinton, Pill, and the other front-enders (namely Wilfred’s personal assistant and the lethal silent manservants who pursue Curtis and company) are all extremely cold and unbelievably inhuman (there is a school of thought that those particular front-ender characters are robots – no, seriously, I’ve met many a viewer who assumed so. The movie gives absolutely no clue to assume such). Bong is quite frankly his least dynamic to me, compared to his performances in The Good, the Bad, the Weird, The Host, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and Memories of Murder, but he’s not outright intolerable. Hurt is standard-fare John Hurt at this point, the non-Chris-Nolan version of Michael Caine, but he’s still notably enough as a character to feel for him every time he attempts to make up for his lack of appendages. He’s still believable. Now, Evans and Swinton, though, they are the true stars of the movie. Evans has given his career-best performance in this film so far as the face of the thoughts and emotions of the back-enders, and his continuous growing as an actor is actually going to make me miss him once he goes ahead with the retirement he keeps threatening. Swinton is outright the kind of caricature the kind of craziness that Snowpiercer personifies would require in its cast, never once yielding to be any less energetic in her bourgeois glad-teething.
But still, most of all the film is driven by the movie’s goddamn heightened energy projecting it the same way that the train barrels through its tracks and so many curious moments – from the New Year’s celebration, to an insane shootout between cars, to Allison Pill’s classroom car, to the brilliantly surprising production design of Ondřej Nekvasil (easily my favorite part; I couldn’t wait to see what was behind each car as it seemed to go off the walls between Tim Burton style, Federico Fellini style, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet style) – toss the tone of the up and down that it is obviously going to have its detractors and lovers. But Bong Joon-ho is the kind of director who knows how to go with any idea that pops into his mind and grabs hold of it long enough to allow the audience to get with it before he moves on to the next cool things he wants to show us. It’s movies like this that he was born to make and I’m glad we get it out of him.
It definitely is not perfect – again, most of it makes no sense and if you want to get with it, you can get with it; if you don’t, you’re gone – but it’s pretty damn well ambitious. Maybe the most ambitious film I’ve seen in a year that includes Interstellar and Boyhood. And I love that ambition. I love that it brings the best of the imagination and the personality of Bong Joon-ho in the film, rather than just being a sobering attempt at political commentary. I love that it makes its genre tenants the most obvious parts of the movie. I love that it has no problems with being a cartoon at points and I love that all of these things have made for what is maybe one of the most lively pictures in a long time for a movie about how much of humanity sucks, even when it’s near extinct.
Love it or hate it, you can’t say it doesn’t try to make itself out to be a cinematic movement. Emotionally or entertainment-wise.