Cast: Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Song Kang-ho, Ko A-sung, Alison Pill, Ed Harris
Director: Bong Joon Ho
Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Snowpiercer, the latest film from South Korean director Bong Joon Ho (The Host, Mother) is an allegorical myth wrapped in a dystopian overcoat, the kind of needlessly glum film about the ruthless haves and the beaten down have-nots that never quite reaches it's destination. This destination, ironically, really doesn't exist, as the speeding train protecting what's left of humanity from sub-zero temperatures in a future world ravaged by global warming (which we hear in artless newsreel voiceovers), keeps on chugging along, irregardless of police brutality and gross protein blocks. That last detail about those gooey jello-looking things, is what the poor people in the back of the train are forced to eat daily, even as the upper-class citizens up front chomp down on delectable steaks and drown in fancy champagne. The movie's bluntness, both in terms of it's violence and allegorical themes, is a blessing and a curse, since Bong Joon Ho clearly relishes the chance to make his English-language debut as bleak as possible, while still playing to liberal audiences who will undoubtably lap up the film's overriding message. However, though he's a gifted visual storyteller and Snowpiercer has it's fair share of memorable moments, Bong Joon Ho simply can't get all of the disparate elements to gel, resulting in a film that falls prey to the video game aesthetic of devolving into a series of action sequences. Truthfully, even though the film's ideas are pretty basic, sharing thematic similarities with Neil Blomkamp's Elysium, they are at least welcome in a universe driven by studio franchise-expanding greed. It's just too bad that this conceptually rich and ambitious picture gets bogged down by exposition-heavy monologues, wild lurches in tone, and distractingly bad special effects.
The main problem with Snowpiercer, therefore, isn't it's disputed length (Harvey Weinstein, as he is wont to do, wanted to trim some 20-odd minutes), nor it's central concept, but rather the fact that Bong Joon Ho weighs everything down with a dour tone and unrelenting violence that feels at odds with some of the more cartoonish elements. Combing satire, realism, and science fiction into one package can be effective, but Snowpiercer somehow never follows through on the strength of it's convictions. It's too busy staging chaotic action scenes, most of which are filmed with a level of clarity and skill, but which eventually bleed together until the whole thing becomes claustrophobic, but not in a particularly interesting way.
Chris Evans plays a bearded, hoodie-wearing have-not that hopes to stage a revolt against the powers that be. Joined by the likes of a bratty young idealist (Jamie Bell), a panic-stricken mother (Octavia Spencer), and a drug-addled designer of the train's doors (Song Kang-ho), their impassioned rebellion stems not just from their despicable living conditions, but also from a lived-in hatred for the wealthy. Also along for the ride is an elderly mentor (John Hurt), and a mute 17-year-old girl (Ko A-sung), who may have clairvoyant powers. Tilda Swinton, meanwhile, shows up in false teeth and a goofy wig as a dictator-like ruler of the upper class, giving what will undoubtedly win the award for mugging actor of the year. Swinton's performance, which is ludicrously over the top, is indicative of what is wrong with Snowpiercer, a film that wants us to take it's notions of class warfare seriously, but then keeps shooting itself in the foot with leaden dialogue and ill-advised attempts at wacky comedy. This fusion of stylized lunacy and self-serious drama probably would have worked better in a south Korean film, but seeing actors like Swinton and Alison Pill, who shows up here as a zany schoolteacher, going wildly over the top, is downright jarring.
The best thing about Snowpiercer is the magnificent set design. Bong Joon Ho and his design team have made each compartment separate and unique, so that the closer the revolters get to the final section, which supposedly houses the great designer of the train named Wilford, the more elaborate the architecture becomes. The film's richly textured visual design remains engaging throughout, even as Bong Joon Ho's staging of action beats eventually grows repetitive. Amidst all the numbing fist-punching, axe-wielding, and spurting blood, there are a few isolated moments of evocative beauty that stand out; the image of a small child running down a darkened hallway carrying a torch, a battle interrupted by the falling of a small snowflake, the sight of our heroes walking in a state of detachment through a garish nightclub. These moments may be fleeting, but they speak to Bong Joon Ho's talents as a visual stylist, and as the film gets closer to the eventual reveal of the train's mastermind, it takes on the feeling of a steampunk fever-dream.
Ultimately, the final notes of Snowpiercer feel confused, simplifying the plight of the have-nots into a righteous crusade devoid of genuine tension. Since we are never in doubt that Evans and his dirty band of misfits are champions for what's best in the world, their incessant slaughtering and destruction are never really invested with any consequences. The moral backbone of the film, despite it's fetishistic genre trappings, is therefore pretty simplistic. What's worse is the film's insistence on either spoon-feeding the audience exposition or not giving us enough information. This might seem like a contradiction, but there are instances here where characters literally explain the themes of the film, or in Evans' case, his entire tragic backstory, and then other times where the motivations of certain individuals are either baffling or uninteresting since we don't know enough about them to elicit sympathy. For all of the artful slow motion battle sequences set to twinkly piano music and class warfare blood-letting, the end result is a film curiously lacking emotional investment. It's beautifully designed, despite some shoddy CGI during outside shots of the train, and the exhausting pacing helps give the dystopian universe a certain starkness that's nominally effective. Ultimately, though, the movie is a misfire, using the mechanism of the train as an allegorical statement about the folly of man in trying to control society and the environment, but instead just feels like one long video game, with each compartment featuring a slew of baddies that need to be eradicated before moving onto the next level.