Snowpiercer (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Snowpiercer (2014)

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Humanity failed to prevent ecological disaster on a massive scale.  As the world starts to crumble several nations gather together to release a chemical into the atmosphere that will bring in a temporary ice age.  Until the world has returned to a liveable state the mighty train, Snowpiercer, carries what's left of humanity on a track around the world.  But tension is brewing between the decadent residents of the upper cars and the endlessly toiling workers of the lower cars, and it can only fester for so long without needing violent release.

Snowpiercer is Bong Joon-ho's (Memories of a Murder, The Host) first primarily English-language film, now available in select theaters throughout the U.S.

When is the timeSnowpiercer is, at times, a mess.  Its screenplay stops to dumb the basics of human sensation into easy-to-digest sentences of needless exposition that's playing out right on the screen.  Many of the lead performers never get a full grip on their simplistically crafted character holes.  Then there's the matter of that twin-car train shootout, where the precious last bullets arc over a great distance to little dramatic effect.

None of that mattered when I heard Curtis (Chris Evans) scream, "Bring the fire!"  There's immediate implications to this to the story as a sudden, brilliant flash of tactical genius to turn the tide of a losing battle.  But Bong Joon-ho, in a stunning tracking shot following a multinational crew of revolutionaries, shows just how little of the world is left for those who aren't born with access to it.  Because of circumstances they could not control they band together to carve a new space of themselves, and are ready to take this space through whatever means are necessary.

This is the revolutionary fictional world that The Hunger Games series made a passing gesture at and settled for hypocritical panderingSnowpiercer does not sell out those in need, does not make apologies for the people who are tired of living in a world that stomps on them, and follows Curtis to the only reasonable conclusion.  If the system fails, it's time to blow it all up.

"Bring the fire!"

"Bring the fire!"

Afterwards, I return to the fact that the faults I have with Snowpiercer are very real, but that does nothing to diminish the power and gravity of its most ideologically vicious moments.  Snowpiercer is the most important film of 2014 for what it gets so perfectly, instead of skipping it for its faults.  That may be not consistent with the morality of Snowpiercer, which forces everyone to position themselves on one extreme or the next, but I have the luxury of contemplating a gray view of morality - one that these people lost a long time ago.

What's so striking about Snowpiercer, and gives weight to many of its action scenes, is the way that it recalls the violent riots for civil and labor rights that have taken place across the world.  Being an American, and alive when the Rodney King verdict was handed down in the '90s, I immediately thought of the violence that swept through California when its black population, screaming to be heard, was put down by men in riot gear and clubs.  The world of Snowpiercer is more class-based, but that still gives us the beatings of those protesting during Occupy Wall Street to remember.

The soldiers of Snowpiercer hide their faces behind uniforms, but their "public relations" have stopped hiding what they are going to take from the poor.   Led by an Ayn Rand caricature named Mason, played to perfect dark-comic excess by Tilda Swinton, their faces are shielded but they yield the tools of labor only to kill those who might rise against them.  It's as though the shame of needing to fight back by hand causes them to mask themselves, a luxury that the leaders do not bother yielding to.  They embrace their monstrous ethical stance and have long stopped caring who knows, preferring to remind the revolutionaries of the tail section their place in the world.

This would be the modern media angle of totalitarian Objectivism coming to light.  In a brilliant comic take on religious indoctrination programming for adults and children, the educational section of the train is filled with happy videos about the leader's benevolence and how everyone is in their right place.  Prosperity gospel is alive and well in America now so there would certainly be no need for the beneficiaries to change it even after the world has ended.  Bong Joon-ho, in a testament to how far he's willing to see Snowpiercer through to its ethical conclusion, does not exclude the children, but does not present them as entirely without hope either.

Song Kang-ho's performance walks a fine line between addiction and power, but never loses the ironic edge that he is being used as a tool for yet another white man who wants power.

Song Kang-ho's performance walks a fine line between addiction and power, and never loses the ironic edge that he is being used as a tool for yet another man who wants power.

By mostly allying lines of gender and skin color, Snowpiercer makes a primarily class-based argument for the revolution and who the allies need to be.  This does not diminish the cultural differences each character brings to the film, especially through Song Kang-ho's complicated performance as an unwilling tool for others, and the usual suspects are those that are still in abuse of their power.  There's always the subtle suggestion that, "We're in this together, no matter the background," but still not forgetting who makes things this way and how easy it is to perpetuate the cycle.  In that sense the villain, who I'm sad to have found out the identity of and would prefer to spare you this here, is perfectly cast considering his history of playing Darwinian chess with people's lives.

But these images are in service to a technical craft that astounded me as the film progressed.  Snowpiercer is a titan of set design, treating each car as its own self-contained microcosm of class and function.  But Joon-ho lays out the progression so clearly that we never lose track of where we are in relation to tail end of the car.  What makes that "Bring the fire" scene so powerful is it reminds us how violently they had to fight for mere feet in every section.  The claustrophobia of the earlier assaults is not diminished, but expanded with the gradual realization of how much space could have been given, but those in power choose not to.

Yes, the shootout between cars is silly and, yes, the sight of Octavia Spencer going into pleasurable silence to get a whiff of one of the last cigarettes in existence is better than someone saying, "Cigarettes?  Those have been extinct for ten years!"  Moments like that may be the least of Snowpiercer, but would have at least distinguished a lesser action film graced with Bong Joon-ho's sense of humor.  Instead, we have this ideological steamroller - which may not be the best film of 2014, but is among the most necessary.

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Tail - SnowpiercerSnowpiercer (2014)

Directed by Bong Joon-ho.
Screenplay written by Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson.
Starring Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swinton, and Octavia Spencer.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. I wasn’t that bothered by any logical flaws or clunky dialogue for the same reasons that you mention. There are so many thrills, and I love the creativity of the set design and Bong Joon-Ho’s approach to shooting the action. Some of the ideological message didn’t strike me as hard, particularly because there’s a weird sense that perhaps humanity wouldn’t have survived at all without Wilford’s “balance”. Of course, there is a strong question of whether we deserve to live at all. Such a brilliant film despite the flaws.

    • Thanks for the comment Dan. I love that the film both brought up that question, and had the guts to see it through to the end. It reminded me a lot of Knowing, the Alex Proyas movie from a few years ago, in its character and story issues but bravery in going so willingly into those dark conclusions.

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