Saturday, September 20, 2014
Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer is, for its anger and sheer inventiveness, an essential film of 2014. Better known to date perhaps for the controversy over how and in what form it would be released, Snowpiercer is a film that had to be made by someone outside the Hollywood system because anyone with a foothold at the studios would have been afraid to touch it. It is a film we need very much.
The tail section of the Snowpiercer - a train that carries the remains of humanity around the world after an environmental disaster - is a place of Dickensian squalor, with passengers crammed into bunks and forced to survive on "protein blocks" served at the discretion of Wilford (Ed Harris). The engine that powers the always-running train is Wilford's creation, and he guards it at the head of a train that on which the class structure is rigidly enforced. The spiritual leader of the tail is Gilliam (John Hurt), but the drive for revolution comes from Curtis (Chris Evans) and his sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell). One thing that Snowpiercer gets right is the way it raises the question that so many revolutions don't answer: "What's next?" Curtis is motivated by anger at the treatment his people receive, and the way that children from the tail are forcibly removed to the front without explanation. The anger only grows as the revolutionaries discover the absurd luxuries of the front cars, which include a fish farm for sushi and a dance club that looks like it was hauled in from a Matrix sequel. Yet it's not clear that Curtis knows what he'd replace the current system with, and when he reaches the front he's tempted by Wilford's offer to oversee what's really a rolling experiment in social engineering. I don't know to what degree Bong Joon-ho was inspired by current American political rhetoric (the script is based on a graphic novel), but the crux of the movie is Curtis's attempt to fight against what's really the stretching of some conservative talking points to a ridiculous extreme. In Wilford's world the poor will always be with us, and to maintain balance on the train they must stay in their place. The alternative of course is the messiness of a free, open society. That's what Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song) wants; he's the security specialist working with the revolutionaries who thinks that life outside the train may be possible.
Curtis makes his choice, as we all must, and the last shot of Snowpiercer is as simple and hopeful as anything I can remember. I don't want to suggest that ideas are all that is at work here. The close-quarter battle scenes are quick and bloody, the various train cars we see are impeccably designed, and the large cast is unexpected and excellent. Chris Evans gets to show a good deal more range than in his Captain America< roles, while Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer (as a single mother) make fine revolutionaries. I loved Alison Pill as a teacher indoctrinating children in the power of 'the engine" and best of all is Tilda Swinton. Swinton plays the bureaucrat charged with overseeing the tail, and she's unrecognizable in false teeth and oversized glasses. The phrase "world-building" has become a cliche, but it's done to near-perfection here in a film that asks important questions and offers no easy answers.