SNOWPIERCER is What Great Sci-Fi is Supposed to Be
Three word review? Believe the hype; and yeah I know there’s been a lot of it. Snowpiercer is the real deal, a genuine sci fi epic that will be used as a touchstone for genre fans for years to come.
Though there is common DNA and call backs to everything from Metropolis to Children of Men, to last year’s underrated Elysium; as well as vigorous nods in the direction of Gilliam, Jeunet and the Wachowski’s, the thrilling thing about Snowpiercer is that it is ultimately original. The rarest of things in genre film, something you haven’t seen before.
Look I was skeptical as anyone else; after all I had been here before. Despite my love of monster movies and Korean New Wave films theoretically putting me smack in the sweet spot of the Venn diagram labeled, “People Most Likely To Love The Host.” Director Bong Joon Ho’s breakout left me completely cold (though I do greatly admire his Memories of Murder).
Snowpiercer follows the last remnants of humanity corralled together on a massive train after a scientific experiment flash froze the world. Seventeen years have passed, enough time for humanity to stagnate and warp into something genuinely other. The lower classes consigned to the back of the train in cattle car like conditions, the upper classes living in decadent luxury. After the mysterious inventor and operator of the train starts helping himself to the underclasses’ children, a long simmering revolution starts a dash through the cars.
Like Elysium this is hardly the subtlest of metaphors, but that doesn’t stop it from being an effective one. This tradition of transparent metaphor in cinematic sci fi stretches all the way back to Metropolis, and the unrestrained proletariat glee is yet another ingredient that gives Snowpiercer its unique flavor. Despite its cast of westerners this is no diluted, compromised movie, it feels like a full on crazy Korean epic.
Take for example a fight that occurs about a third of the way into the film between the rebels and a group of soldiers. It’s easy to imagine it as the typical first act ending set piece we’d get in a Hollywood film. Instead we end up with something that starts like Bong Joon Ho’s Gangs Of New York, evolves into an absurdist farce before twisting into an out and out horror scene, which is capped by a scene of deranged triumph and loss that is genuinely beautiful. It hits about a half dozen different emotional registers, is genuinely unpredictable and caused more actual excitement than what the latest crop of blockbusters have tried to manufacture.
All of this is carefully fostered by Bong Joo Ho’s meticulous design; the film’s early scenes unfold with a gnawing claustrophobia, everything on the greyscale. Color belongs only to the upper classes and the first time we really see it in the film it looks like an invasion. A blast of natural light a little later looks even more alien. Conversely as the compartments get fancier, the pointedly multi ethnic population of steerage is replaced by one that’s more and more homogenized. Though their environments open up, they become upsetting in new ways. Things get stranger, never quite looking like what they are supposed to represent, more like hasty imitations of old concepts and decadence slapped together quickly. Which is of course exactly what they are. The cumulative effect is a kind of funhouse derangement of the senses that is genuinely unsettling. Bong has convincingly created a world where the sight of a cigarette is enough to cause genuine awe, it’s as much of a lived in world as Blade Runner’s.
Everyone involved brings their A game. Chris Evans is basically stuck playing straight man, but he gives his character a tormented air that keeps him involving and crushes his big monolouge at the end. John Hurt continues his run of great late work and Tilda Swinton lets her freak flag unfurl to the fullest it has been since she played Gabriel in Constantine. Special mention must also go to Allison Pill who gives a performance freaky enough to override my crush on her, which takes some doing believe you me. Other standouts include Octavia Davis, Song Kang-ho and a surprise appearance that I would not dream of spoiling, but is pretty much perfect.
Simply put Snowpiercer is what great sci fi is supposed to be. Both a reflection of our current nightmares and an extrapolation of our worst tendencies, a forceful cry of class anger, that utilizes big ideas and pulp thrills with equal fervency. It’s a blast. Yeah there’s a lot of hype- and I just added to it, but if you don’t believe me see it for yourself. The Weinsteins may be making it as difficult as possible, but it is well worth the effort. Trust me.