There has been hum of anticipation preceding the U.S. release of Snowpiercer Joon-ho Bong’s first (mostly) English language film that, ironically, found distribution abroad before finally being released in the good old US of A. Harvey Weinstein apparently wanted to cut something like 20 minutes out of the film for us stupid Americans. Too much talky-talky, I suppose. Reports say the edited version tested poorly and, voila, we here in the Land of the Free get to see what the rest of the world saw.
I’m not exactly sure what Mr. Weinstein wanted to cut. There are extended scenes of dialogue where Chris Evans or John Hurt or Tilda Swinton go on about order or revolution, but none of it struck me as unnecessarily dense or confused. In fact the entire premise is almost absurdly simple, its points obvious, its metaphors almost labored. Still, while Snowpiercer isn’t as strong as some of Mr. Bong’s past efforts (Memories of Murder and Mother immediately come to mind), he manages to overcome the scripts shortcomings and spins a compelling and entertaining post-apocalyptic, dystopian adventure story.
We are some 18 years after the world’s end. In an effort to curb global warming, the nations of the world banded together and dispersed a chemical into the atmosphere that would have, they thought, cooled temperatures enough the maintain our polar ice caps and salvage beach front property values around the world. But the chemical worked too well and froze everything and everyone. Earth is now a giant block of ice. Whoops.
The only survivors (that we know of) are packed on a giant, high-speed train that circles the globe, built by a billionaire, the mysterious and never seen Wilford, who always dreamed of living on a train. Well, the world froze and those holding tickets didn’t have a choice about where they could live. Here’s your compartment, welcome to the rest of your life.
While everything is more or less cozy for the first class passengers, those who elbowed their ways on without tickets are confined to the rear of the train, in the grimy filth and dark decay of poverty and repression. They are rationed blocks of gelatinous protein bars, but otherwise are left to their own devices in the rear of the train.
After 18 years of scraping and exploitation, after 18 years of watching armed guards take away their children for who knows what ends, they decide to fight back, to band together and move forward. Using the security expert who designed the train’s system (Kang-ho Song), they override the barriers and slowly move forward, car by car, discovering more about the world they’ve been barred from than they ever wanted to know.
As entertaining as the movie is, we can’t ignore the fact that Bong is making a serious point about the responsibility of power and the senselessness of exploitation. Tilda Swinton’s Minister Mason, the henchwoman for Wilford, tells them they all have a preordained place and they must know and keep that place, the same words used by those at the top of all exploitative systems since the dawn of time. Feudalism, slavery, unregulated capitalism all rely on extracting as much value from those below us without regard to their well being. And while there is a long scene at the end of the film in which we are almost convinced that this is the way things need to be, we are reminded that exploitation, while profitable for a while, is not sustainable. Those being stomped on will stop being grateful just for being saved and being alive; they want the opportunity to live well like everyone else.
There’s nothing terribly subtle about the way Bong explores these issues. Not that subtlety has much of a place in a picture like Snowpiercer. Absurdity and horror go hand in hand on this train. As ferocious as Mason is, Swinton laces her performance with a gleeful gusto and gets the movie’s biggest laughs. She’s something like a demonic mixture of Margaret Thatcher, Nurse Ratchet, and Joanna Lumley’s Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous. If you see this movie for no other reason, see it for Tilda Swinton.
Swinton’s performance is part of Bong’s acknowledgement of the absurdity of not only the premise of the movie (the perpetual motion engine of the train and its closed ecosystem would likely wither under careful scientific scrutiny), but the way we hold constructed social structures as sacrosanct. Just as nobles told serfs that God put them where they were and they should keep their place, Minister Mason tells the passengers in the back of the train the same. Much as factory owners said (and continue to say) working hard will be rewarded (when and with what they usually fail to specify), Snowpiercer’s third class passengers are told just the fact that Wilford allows them to continue living is their reward.
But life isn’t enough. Social structures that demand repression are dangerously shortsighted. There is nothing sacred about any social structure: they can be upended and, if things are bad enough, they usually are violently disturbed. Just have a chat with Louis XVI about that. And these violent uprisings threaten not just those sitting comfortably at the top, but everyone. If we want a functioning, healthy society, we have to include all voices, give everyone opportunities to flourish (rather than just live), and, above all, we need to respect one another.
Snowpiercer takes on these issues less elegantly than I would have liked, nearly battering us with its point, but it’s still far preferable to most of the action/adventure films out there. It also lacks any major surprises. I’m not talking about twists, but the entire trajectory of the movie essentially followed the path I assumed it would take. There was nothing there that I didn’t expect to see in some form with, that is, the exception of Tilda Swinton’s performance.
But these reservations shouldn’t hold anyone back from seeing Snowpiercer. When the movie ended I thought, “Well, that was fun, but I don’t need to see it again.” But as the days have passed I have been tempted to rewatch it, remembering moments I want to re-experience, like Alison Pill’s demented schoolteacher. It’s certainly one of the more memorable movies you’ll see this year. The anticipation has not been squandered.