SNOWPIERCER, the Hollywood-stars/English words debut of South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, is the second best train movie I saw on the big screen in June. While UNDER SIEGE 2: DARK TERRITORY is DIE HARD on a boat on a train, SNOWPIERCER is the post-apocalypse on a train. The whole world has been frozen over, eradicating all life except for the lucky bastards that got onto a giant train that has been traveling a globe-spanning track for 17 years.
It has similar themes of class inequality to ELYSIUM and the HUNGER GAMESes, but I liked it quite a bit more than those. The concept is that the poor people live in squalor at the back and the rich people in luxury at the front. It’s a brutal dictatorship; the tail dwellers get threatened and beaten, limbs severed as punishment for defiance, fed nothing but green jelly protein bars. Every once in a while a lady in a pretty yellow dress comes back with a tape measure to size up which of their children to steal. You can just feel the anger and humiliation of the people when this shit happens. It’s easy to hate those motherfuckers.
So this dude Curtis (Chris Evans) leads a revolt. They’re gonna fight their way all the way to the front and kill the engineer, so the whole movie is this linear journey from car to car. They keep coming across new threats and new worlds, like video game levels. The rich people cars get more and more impressive. You wouldn’t believe some of the shit you can fit onto a train. A pool, an aquarium, a dance club, a dentist’s office, a room full of guys wearing ski masks and holding axes. WAY better than Amtrak.
The promo stills you’ll see online tend to have a monochromatic, icy look to them. Lots of dirty people in greyish wool clothes, huddled in dank cars. But don’t worry, this is not one of those movies that looks the same all throughout. Those pictures made me think THE MATRIX but only the parts where they’re in the space ship wearing rags. No, this is a journey from a place like that to somewhere else. And there are weird tonal shifts. Some cars are goofier than others.
This movie hits a sweet spot for me, because it would be cool enough just as an action premise: rebels fighting their way from one end of the train to the other, like THE RAID on rails. But it’s even better as commentary, a heightened way to visualize the divisions in our society.
Of course there’s alot of philosophy and ethics and shit going on under the surface. Near the beginning Curtis and his friend Edgar (Jamie Bell) need a little boy named Timmy to give them his protein bar as part of their scheme. They try to offer him various trades that he does not accept. Edgar wants to just snatch it from the kid, but Curtis won’t let him. They go through alot of trouble to make sure Timmy is giving it up willingly, not through force. They’re not gonna be like those assholes.
Evans has really done that thing they call “come into his own as a leading man.” It’s funny to remember that I used to just think of him as a sort of likable douche in those terrible FANTASTIC FOUR movies. Now that he’s done two good CAPTAIN AMERICAs and an AVENGERS those don’t count toward his overall comic book hero status and he’s a full fledged movie star. And to his credit he didn’t wait to get the interesting smaller projects in there. He was already in SUNSHINE, another smart sci-fi movie about the end of the world, kind of a companion piece because that one was about heat and this one is about cold. That one had only a few people peppering a giant, lonely space ship, this one has all of the human race crammed onto a train. That one had one last mission to try to save the world, this one the world is already lost and they’re just trying to hang on and maybe have a dip in the pool and some sushi at some point.
I didn’t even know that Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer (Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN II) was gonna be in this, or Jamie Bell, and I didn’t even recognize Ewen Bremner (AVP: ALIEN VS. PREDATOR). The real heart of the supporting cast are Song Kang-ho (SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, MEMORIES OF MURDER, THE HOST, THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE WEIRD, THIRST) as the cube-sniffing security system designer Namgoong and Ko Ah-sung (THE HOST) as Yona. They’re both characters who know more about the train than the revolutionaries, but communication is cumbersome (they use a translating machine, kinda like Barbarella’s tongue-box) and they don’t seem to have the same agenda. So you could say they’re foreign visitors like Bong is in Hollywood, or they’re our guide into his cinematic world. I guess both.
Tilda Swinton steals the movie though. She’s really funny and weird as the Minister who comes to the back to oversee the capital punishment and make condescending speeches. Alot of sci-fi dystopias have the elites look like models, or at least like plastic surgery disasters. This lady has horrible teeth, ugly glasses and many awkward tics. She’s not one of The Beautiful People, she’s just old money, I figured.
(Later I read some backstory about how she worked further back on the train and the boss liked her work and promoted her. That’s kinda cool too because that means she knows what it’s like to be far down on the totem pole but still has more entitlement in her than empathy. She’s an asshole.)
Her character looks almost as cartoony as one she’d play in a Wes Anderson movie, but it really works. She has so many funny little tics and shit. A great performance. I like a movie like this that really works in a traditional entertainment way, but also has lots of odd little things it leaves me wondering about. For example the scene where some thugs all dip their ax blades into a fish and get them covered in blood before they fight. I took it to mean that the world is so polluted that any fish that can survive in it are completely toxic and their blood can be used as poison. But later there’s a scene that seems to contradict this theory. So instead of a cool moment I get a mystery. Sometimes that’s better.
I would not consider this a straight up action movie, I’m never waiting for the violence to happen. Action isn’t the point, it’s just something that happens sometimes as a natural progression. Therefore it’s merely disappointing and not a dealbreaker that the first couple action scenes are shot in jigglyvision. But then they get better, and one particularly long and brutal fight was exhausting enough that it even reminded me a little bit about how hard it was to kill Mad Dog in THE RAID. And there are some very clever action concepts, like the idea that the train is so long that when it goes around a bend the two sides can exchange gunfire.
I believe that the most formidable villain, Vlad Ivanov (THE MARKSMAN, SECOND IN COMMAND) as a henchman apparently called “Franco the Elder,” is a gay man, and that’s kinda novel. In one scene he and his fellow security thug lean on each other in a slightly cuddly way; when the other one dies he goes way out of control in a single-minded quest for vengeance. Maybe I’m reading this wrong (it’s possible they’re just supposed to have a brotherly bond) but I like my interpretation. Let me have this one.
I know alot of people love Bong Joon-Ho. I’ve only seen THE HOST (I know, MEMORIES OF MURDER should be next, right?), and that was pretty good. This has the feel of a master playing on a new playground, not the disheartening collection of compromises and mistranslations you fear in an overseas auteur’s first contact with Hollywood and filming in English. It feels very international, not alienating as an American film, though some of the brutality and shifts from utter bleakness to weird comedy are more characteristic of Korean movies.
It’s really well written by Bong with Kelly Masterson (BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD), based on an early ’80s French comic book, and it’s got a fistful of great payoffs. Not just surprise reveals, but also heartwrenching speeches that change our understanding of what’s going on. Those are great scenes, or as Harvey Weinstein calls them, “things I was gonna cut out.” Not surprisingly he wanted to cut 25 minutes out of it. After a long fight Bong somehow convinced him to leave it as a good movie but release it on less screens. I wish Wong Kar Wai woulda thought of that. It actually would’ve made more sense with THE GRANDMASTER, since that’s clearly an art movie despite the great fight scenes. This one I think will be enjoyable even for some normal people if it ever makes its way in front of them.
Right now I think I read it’s only in 8 American cities, but it has long since played in many other countries, and there’s even a Chinese blu ray and dvd out there. I hope some of you have seen it because I think we gotta have a brief END SPOILER discussion from here on out. Warning warning warning turn back. I love what transpires between Curtis and Wilford at the end. It’s a real powerful twist not because I didn’t expect it (although I didn’t), but because it threatens my world view. You can’t side with Wilford, he’s done horrible things and he doesn’t seem trustworthy either. I’m not being charmed by him like, say, Bill at the end of KILL BILL. But then, he is the genius who saved the human race, I can’t argue with that. And maybe his way really is the only way to keep it alive. I was scared that was what the movie was gonna tell us. The scariest idea is Curtis taking over the train, trying to be more benevolent about it, and finding out that won’t work. What would be worse than having to accept that Wilford is right, that we were naive all along, that we had to be treated that way?
I also love the twist with Namgoong, because Curtis can’t wrap his head around the idea that his pet junkie is actually more radical than he is. Namgoong gave up on fixing the system a long time ago. He just wants to escape it.
A favorite detail: the survivors wear fur coats they stole earlier at the club. A status symbol for the ridiculously opulent repurposed as an essential tool of survival. It’s beautiful.
I don’t know, part of me thinks people are giving this a little too much credit in the deepness department, because it’s all sentiment. If we’re gonna take this symbolism and apply it to our world for real then what does it really mean? That we should dismantle our entire system, possibly killing almost everybody, and the few survivors should go off into the danger of the unknown to try something else?
I don’t even know what that looks like, or how to do it, even with guns and bombs. Which I’m against. But still, the story speaks to me. A little bit of that “it figures it would be something like this.” Good movie. Better than DARJEELING LIMITED (I liked that though), better than THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE (actually I can’t prove that, I haven’t seen it). Even compared against non-train movies it’s top notch stuff.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.