Four stars. Rated R, for profanity, extreme violence and gore, and drug content
By Derrick Bang
South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho came to my attention in early 2007, with the Stateside release of The Host, a taut, eye-popping monster flick that blended savvy political commentary with impressive levels of tension and excitement ... and more than a little dark-dark-dark humor.
|Having captured Mason (Tilda Swinton, center) and made her their unwilling guide, Curtis|
(Chris Evans, left) makes her lead the way as his desperate band moves from one train
car to the next, never certain of what they'll find beyond each new door.
Ho delivers the same mix with Snowpiercer, with a notable upgrade: While portions of The Host reflected the naturalistic, guerrilla-style filmmaking of a modest budget, this new film is an A-list production all the way. It looks spectacular in every respect, and is further enhanced by a top-quality cast of familiar faces from both American and South Korean cinema.
The grim, cautionary nature of Ho’s storytelling hasn’t diminished; he remains convinced that humanity doesn’t deserve the planetary paradise on which we reside. Give us half a chance, and we’ll screw it up. The horrific creature that wreaked havoc in The Host was spawned by arrogant Americans who polluted South Korea’s Han River with dangerous chemicals; the post-apocalyptic events in Snowpiercer result from our “brilliant” attempt to reverse the effects of global warming.
I’m reminded of the conversations known to have taken place prior to the initial atomic bomb tests in the 1940s — attributed to either or both Edward Teller and J. Robert Oppenheimer, depending on the source — and which explored the possibility that even a single bomb might ignite Earth’s atmosphere via a fusion reaction, and thus destroy the world. Such fears notwithstanding, Those In Charge pulled the switch, and I guess we can conclude that God (and Mother Nature) watched over us that day.
Luck isn’t with us this time. The essential back-story unfolds during a quick montage prologue, as news reports discuss the dispersal of a chemical agent designed to reverse the effects of global warming. We may well imagine a similar cautionary conversation about unintended consequences, but no matter: This switch also is pulled, perhaps just as recklessly, and the results are miraculous. At first.
Until the entire planet is plunged into a lethal ice age, destroying all life.
But this catastrophic result wasn’t instantaneous; time allowed a microcosm of humanity to be saved on board a sleek, lengthy train originally designed as the ultimate, self-contained vacation vehicle for rich tourists wanting to circumnavigate the globe. Now transformed into a futuristic Noah’s Ark, there’s just one problem: Seventeen years have passed, and there’s still no safe place to “land.”
The train races around the world, its nickname derived from the pointed “snout” and high-tech engines and gyroscopic computers that allow it to blast through the frequent snowdrifts and frozen ice that block the track.
The passengers, meanwhile, have been sorted according to the usual class tyranny wielded by those with the power to make such decisions: The elite few enjoy lives of luxury in the train’s posh front section, while the dirtier trailing cars have become a slum, choked by “regular folks” who are perpetually cold and hungry, clinging desperately to the waning vestiges of their humanity.
To make matters even worse, emissaries from the front routinely visit the back — always accompanied by armed guards — with requests for skilled labor of one sort or another. (Parallels to WWII-era Jewish musicians who saved themselves by performing for their Nazi captors are, no doubt, intentional.) Even more unsettling: the occasional conscription of small children whose bodies and arms first are measured by a stern-faced “nurse.” Such children are taken away, never to be seen again.
Our imaginations run riot, already deeply unsettled by the persuasive power of Ondrej Nekvasil’s marvelous production design. To be sure, this dystopian storyline is preposterous on all sorts of levels, but we buy into it nonetheless ... and, having done so, immediately are invested in the fates of those soon to become our protagonists. Parables and metaphors don’t need to make complete sense, in order to remain powerful.
Long-simmering plans for revolt, by those in the tail section, erupt with the kidnapping of yet two more children. Curtis (Chris Evans), long guided by the elderly Gilliam (John Hurt), has been making such plans for a long time. (Weeks? Months? Time is a vague concept for people who’ve not seen daylight for 17 years.) The younger Edgar (Jamie Bell), who worships Curtis, is eager for a fight ... but the latter has been advising caution, and patience.
Until now. These two most recent children belong, respectively, to Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and Andrew (Ewen Bremner); their anguish will not be denied. Recognizing that momentum and surprise are in their favor, Curtis leads the charge on the first guarded checkpoint that separates their squalid cars from ... whatever is on the other side.
That is this script’s most fascinating tease, at least initially: None of these people has seen what lies behind the first set of doors. Taking each subsequent car is guaranteed to be a struggle, with every fresh revelation just as eye-popping to us, as it is to our heroes.
Did I mention struggle? Let’s amend that to limb-severing, bone-crunching bloodbath. The resulting melees have the grim desperation typical of hyper-violent Asian crime-noir and martial-arts cinema, with breathtaking battles akin to what we’ve seen in genre classics such as Oldboy and, more recently, The Raid and its sequel. Axes, knives and clubs figure prominently, bullets having become “extinct” as a result of earlier, unsuccessful revolts by the disenfranchised.
As I’ve warned before, with other genre films, this one’s not for the faint of heart.
Evans, well recognized as the red, white and true-blue Captain America, is an equally fine choice for this darker, bleaker character. Initially, Curtis is faced with a difficult but fairly uncomplicated task: Move ever forward. The stakes are high, and the enemies ruthless, but Curtis is bolstered by what seems a clear moral imperative. As the sortie proceeds, however, his choices become more difficult, and even agonizing: the trade-offs harder to rationalize.
The enemy also becomes less tangible, the efforts at bargaining more tempting, the threatened reprisals more horrific. How far does a “good leader” push his followers, before deciding that the escalating sacrifice can’t be justified?
Evans displays the necessary angst with the tortured bearing of the truly damned, his showcase moment coming when he confesses — as much to himself, as to his listener — how his behavior now, 17 years later, has been shaped by his memory of what it was like, when he and his fellow “norms” first were allowed to board the train.
Bell is suitably feisty and impulsive as the hot-tempered Edgar, eager to serve at Curtis’ side. Spencer personifies the vengeful mother tiger who will do anything — anything — to retrieve her cub. Tanya also unleashes an occasional one-liner with the mordant comic timing that made Spencer’s Academy Award-winning performance in The Help so memorable.
That darkly humorous tone is important here, as it was in The Host, in terms of granting fleeting release from the narrative’s ghastly horrors. No surprise, then, that Bremner’s Andrew — despite an early, crippling injury — is presented as a burlesque: more lunatic clown than rational human being. His very presence shorthands the underlying message: How could anybody remain sane, under such circumstances?
The standout performance, though, comes from Tilda Swinton: so memorably appalling as Mason, the primary villain of this piece. Mason is the “face” of the Great Wilford: the long-unseen genius who designed the train, back in the day, and now keeps it running, and therefore keeps everybody aboard alive.
All but unrecognized behind oversized false teeth and equally huge spectacles, Swinton is “authority” taken to dreadful extremes: the condescending schoolteacher who will rap a mischievous little boy’s knuckles until they’re raw and bleeding, all the while insisting that he’s “making” her punish him in such fashion. We’ve not seen casual evil depicted so well since Louise Fletcher brought Nurse Ratched to similar nightmarish life, in 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko, both remembered from The Host, re-unite here as Namgoong and Yona: He’s the engineer who designed all the increasingly complex doors that separate one train car from the next, and she’s his daughter. They’re both hooked on kronol, an addictive hallucinogenic drug fabricated from atomic waste; Namgoong agrees to help Curtis only as long as the latter can supply more kronol, and of course the engineer’s usefulness decreases as he continues to indulge.
Hurt nails his role as the wise old warrior who clearly knows more than he’s telling, and Alison Pill is a hoot as a beatific teacher — boy, did she drink the Kool-Aid! — we meet once our heroes have battled far enough forward to encounter the children of the privileged class.
Pill’s grade-school instructor is another example of Ho’s unsettling blend of humor and horror: We frequently don’t know whether to laugh or cringe. Another memorably strong disconnect occurs during a savage battle between Curtis’ allies and blade-wielding soldiers: a skirmish that stops cold — much like the WWI “Christmas miracle” between Allied and German soldiers — as the train crosses the bridge that marks their collective journey-to-nowhere’s 18th anniversary.
Seconds later, that milestone acknowledged by all, the fighting resumes.
Nekvasil’s superb production design isn’t confined to the train itself, although each freshly revealed car is yet another masterpiece of steampunk technology and extrapolated social values turned hideously rancid. Before long, our heroes also work their way far enough forward to reach cars with windows, allowing their — and our — first glimpse of the Earth’s now-frozen landscape: harsh, surreal and quietly shocking. Rarely has cautionary sci-fi been presented so persuasively.
Much as I love the bulk of Ho’s ambitious film, however, his narrative goes off the rails during a needlessly protracted and clumsily philosophical finale. Ho’s script, with an assist from Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead), is adapted very loosely from Le Transperceneige, a 1982 French graphic novel by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette. Ho’s effort to “improve” upon that original bogs down beneath preachy third-act revelations that ruin what has, until this moment, been one helluva ride.
Indeed, you’ll likely be quite annoyed upon exiting the theater ... and that’s a shame, because there’s much to admire about Snowpiercer. At its best, this is slick, sharp-edged sci-fi satire: a cautionary tale that entertains while warning against the dangers of amorality and the folly of human hubris.
Not quite a dystopian classic, then, like District 9, with its perfect finale. But certainly a near-miss worth embracing.