Crazy Train: Taking Account of ‘Snowpiercer’

By: Daniel Reynolds

We’re almost into August which means the summer movie schedule has one month to go. September marks the official (but really, unofficial) start of the award season period of film releases. The biggest tell-tale sign of a changeover? “Movies” start getting called “films” more often.

The biggest movies of the year so far have been released outside of the summer season (Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Lego Movie), while other mammoth films have been met with dollars but an absence of hysteria (The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Godzilla). Sure, Transformers: Age of Extinction made its money, but it is about as uninspiring as they come. The most surprising movie, using the box office and quality metrics, has been Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Yep, we’re still rooting for those apes. But on the other side of the equation, past the small art films both pleasing and abrasive (The Lunch Box, The Rover), and after the recognizable albeit towering achievement of Boyhood, there stands a film. A weird film. A film of both huge scope and demented vision. A film with recognizable stars and unknown faces.

There is a film called Snowpiercer.

Yes, that's Captain America and Academy Award winners Tilda Swinton and Octavia Spencer.

Yes, that’s Captain America and Academy Award winners Tilda Swinton and Octavia Spencer.

This is not a critical assessment of Snowpiercer. The film’s been kicking around in theatres and on Video-on-Demand (VOD) services for over a month now. In my original summer breakdown, I had it pegged for a late June release. It didn’t get here until mid-to-late July. In watching the film however, it’s more of a surprise that it got released at all.

This is not a negative assessment of Snowpiercer. The film is brutally and brilliantly staged and somehow manages to be both mercilessly violent and touchingly humane in equal measure. It’s worth going to see because, as you may have surmised by my tone up to now, there has been a dearth of the unexpected in this year’s movies so far.

This is a small summary of the absurdity that is Snowpiercer. Nothing I write here will quite make sense given the lack of context, but that should make you want to see the film more, not less. To wit:

1. Snowpiercer is set entirely on a train.

The basis for the movie is actually a French comic book called Le Transperceneige. It’s been rolled out in a couple of volumes starting way back in 1982. Due to a series of preventative global warming experiments gone wrong, the earth has become a neo-Hoth (with even fewer smelly animals). As you can imagine, this makes the film feel entirely claustrophobic. And yet, an almost kaleidoscopic sense of colour, vision and grandeur is achieved with effective – and sometimes shocking – production design. Once you get past the first few (lower class) cars that is.

2. The allegories come at you pretty quickly.

The biggest critical bone to pick with Snowpiercer is its rather overt application of metaphor. Oh, you can settle on any which one you like, really. With all of humanity trapped on a train circling an ice aged earth, a class system gradually stratifies. There are the people in the tail of the train, subsisting on black protein bars of mysterious origin and living in squalor, and then there are the people at the front of the train, coasting along in the lap of luxury. They are all driven by, and choose to believe in the almighty power of the Engine. (I’ll capitalize it, just in case the idea here is not clear.) Just in those last couple of sentences you can construct whole think pieces about the sources of class inequality, the tenets of capitalism, and the perils of organized religion. Once the uprising action starts, you won’t even have to think too hard about it.

3. But seriously, those protein bars are made of something weird.

I won’t reveal what they are made of, but suffice it to say, it’s probably not what you are expecting and it is definitely not a Soylent Green scenario. As an aside, Charlton Heston would have been great in a 1970 version of Snowpiercer. The Chris Evans role as leader of the resistance movement is basically the template for a lot of Heston’s early (non-biblical) roles.

Baby, it's cold outside.

Baby, it’s cold outside.

 

4. The cast is a diverse group of men and women, led by a Korean director.

So maybe Snowpiercer missed its chance to be a truly great 1970s era batshit sci-fi movie. Back then, I don’t know what exactly it was (the drugs?), films were occasionally allowed to be crazy. You ever see the original Rollerball? How about A Boy and His Dog? A film like Soylent Green has become spoiler shorthand, but watching it remains a pretty wild and disturbing ride. I’d like to assume Bong Joon-Ho, the director of Snowpiercer, has seen all of them. His visions appear to be filtered through that kind of absurd fantasy, and spliced with a Korean sensibility. He’s stocked his movie with all kinds of fascinating tropes (and the actors to bring them to life). There’s Evans as the jughead leader, Tilda Swinton as the unctuous overlord Mason, John Hurt playing the aged mentor, Octavia Spencer as the deranged mother, and Ed Harris gets to re-live and re-imagine a mix of his Christof character from The Truman Show and the Matrix’s Architect (remember him?)

Now, those old 70s movies had some pacing issues (like Snowpiercer) and an inherent nihilism that knew no bounds (sort of like Snowpiercer). They weren’t afraid to go there for better or worse. Sure, they hit you over the head with their obviousness too, but they had flare and inventiveness, even a humour at times. I marvel at the fact that a French comic book got adapted and directed by a Korean and filled with white, black and Asian actors from every corner of the globe. The classic spirit is there, but this is a new age.

5. Snowpiercer is a box office failure.

As of this writing, the film has made 3.9 million dollars. It has already gone through some controversy with regards to run time and final cut control. It was quickly launched onto VOD as if to counteract the inevitable WTF reaction the film was bound to get in theatres. To be clear, Snowpiercer is not perfect. It lingers on a plethora of bloody violence, it’s themes are bolder and louder than even its action, and the aforementioned pace seems to follow anything but the carefully calibrated running of its train setting. Still, it’s the summer and we know how the rest of this plays out. At least Snowpiercer gives you a chance to experience what it feels like to go right off the rails.

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