Warning: Contains Minor Spoilers
Any analysis of Bong Joon-Ho’s new film Snowpiercer is probably going to address all the chaos surrounding its release, so let’s get that out of the way first. It’s been well publicized that after the film’s U.S. distribution rights were picked up by Harvey Weinstein he demanded a bunch of cuts and insisted that a prolog and epilog be added. When Bong Joon-Ho refused, Weinstein seemed to throw a fit and has now dumped the movie into a super-narrow release with almost no marketing support. These fights are not uncommon when dealing with “Harvey Scissorhands” but this one seemed particularly irritating to me because behind it all seemed to be this specter that Weinstien’s true motivation was to relegate the film to a VOD rather than theatrical release for most audiences, a move that ensured that the release would not only be limited but also boycotted by major arthouse chains like Landmark theaters. In my area that meant it would be opening in two places: a dump with wholly inadequate projection and a random multiplex way out in the boonies. I was within inches of boycotting and washing my hands of the mess, but ultimately I decided to just be glad that the director’s preferred version was at least playing somewhere and bit the bullet. The question then is, was this movie even worthy of all the drama?
Snowpiercer is set in a post-apocalyptic world in which a climate-change solution has worked a little too well and started a new Ice Age that has killed off almost the entire world’s population. The few remaining survivors have taken refuge on a train called The Snowpiercer which had been built by an insane billionaire named Mr. Wilford. This train travels along a very long track that goes around the entire world and is powered by a perpetual motion engine that keeps everyone warm. However, there is a strict caste system on board with rich people living in luxury in the front section of the train and the poor people squeezed into the back section where they live in squalor and are controlled by vicious guards. Among these tail-section dwellers is a man named Curtis Everett (Chris Evens) who has been plotting with other tail-section leaders like Tanya (Octavia Spencer), Edgar (Jamie Bell), and Gilliam (John Hurt) to fight back against these guards and release a security engineer named Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) who has the knowledge that could open up car after car for these rebels and help them take over the entire train.
As Snowpiercer opens it quickly becomes clear that this is a science fiction movie with a strong allegory about wealth inequality taking the form of rich people forcibly separating themselves from the poor which occasionally stops in order to feature creative moments of violence. What other recent film does that sound like? If you guess that I was hinting at last year’s Elysium you are correct. I was one of the few people who really liked that movie, so that comparison shouldn’t be taken as an insult necessarily, and I’m not accusing one of these movies of copying the other but the similarities are striking, especially in Snowpiercer’s first half. The main difference of course is that Snowpiercer’s future society is confined to a single whimsically large vehicle rather than the entire world. As such everything is deliberately on a much smaller scale.
As the movie went on and we went from car to car with each one posing a new challenge I started being reminded of the movie Cube, but then a much better comparison hit me: the movie is a hell of a lot like the video game “Bioshock.” Both are about enclosed societies built by rich people who fancy themselves to be visionaries and who have very strict notions about how the societies they’ve built have been run. Also, like “Bioshock,” much of the fun of the film is in seeing this world’s equivalent to the various world institutions and amenities as the journey goes on. Case in point, the film gets much more visually interesting once it finally gets out of the drab prison-like tail section of the train and we start seeing the luxury cars we start seeing sights like an aquarium car and a school car and a nightclub car and so on and so forth.
Before the film gets to all that though, it can be pretty shaky. The whole movie has some fairly questionable dialogue and this is especially true in that first half hour. It’s also got some less than great performances by actors like Jamie Bell. It also doesn’t help that the tone that Bong Joon-ho creates can really be all over the place. The film can shift pretty radically between strange bits of Asian humor and serious post-apocalyptic pathos and some of the performances fall victim to this. Case in point, Tilda Swinton gives one of the most over-the-top and ridiculous performances you’re likely to see all year, but I’m also pretty sure she’s just doing exactly who Joon-ho told her to do. In some ways I feel like the movie might have been a little easier to take if it had been a full on Korean language production whose wackiness might have been easier to go with had it been distanced by sub-titles.
Overall, Snowpiercer is a pretty mixed bag. Parts of it seem visionary, parts of it are completely fucked, parts of it are fun, and parts of it kind of made me cringe. As a science fiction movie it is interesting but not wholly original, as an action movie it has some quality moments but probably won’t impress anyone who’s accustomed to Hollywood levels of action and destruction and the movie is marred by some poor CGI here and there. Ultimately I feel like the best way to enjoy it is to look at it within the context of the recent wave of South Korean cinema like The Host and Save the Green Planet, but those movies certainly aren’t for everyone. Ultimately I think it’s just different enough and has enough strong moments that I still recommend it, but not without some very strong reservations, and frankly I kind of have a better idea at this point why Harvey Weinstien didn’t want to dump too many resources into promoting it, because this is going to seem really really weird to anyone who doesn’t already have experience with the quirky rhythms of Asian cinema.
*** out of Four