Friday, August 1, 2014

Snowpiercer (2014) – Review

Review: Snowpiercer is on one hand a cool sci-fi film built on impressive visuals and great dystopian themes, but on the other hand it is a fairly ludicrous narrative that seems to leave a lot to be desired from a logic standpoint.

Global warming has become so bad on Earth that collectively the planet’s governments have decided to shoot a chemical into the atmosphere to cool down the planet. It backfires causing an eternal winter that is far too cold to sustain life; however, a brilliant man, Wilford, who loves trains, knew the consequences of the chemical. Prior to its use, Wilford built a global rail line with a train that runs as a self-sustaining system. Those onboard the train during the chemical’s dispersal are Earth’s only surviving humans, as the chemical agent immediately caused Earth to descend into a world-ending global winter, killing almost all life. Fast-forward seventeen years. A class system has developed on the train and the poorest live in terrible conditions. Lead by Curtis, the poor plan to violently revolt. They want to storm the rest of the train and take the engine and hold it hostage to stop their oppression and change their fortunes.

There are many things to like in writer-director Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer, especially for sci-fi fans. The train is structured in such a manner so that to some extent it mirrors both the evolution of humanity from beast ravaging in the muck to elevated sophistication and the layers of today’s global class system. The train, from back to front, begins with the ultra-poor who are oppressed and abused. The poor live in darkness and are completely subservient to the upper classes for their food, healthcare, and all other manner of basic human needs/rights. In turn, they are treated with almost no regard, as if they are a subspecies. As one moves forward through the train, there are sections dedicated to incarceration, science, education, polite society, hedonism, and finally an all-powerful man at the front who controls the engine (the life force of the train and the society).

In this way, the film acts as a metaphor for our own society, one that sees the wealth and control of the very rich grow at the expense of everyone else. This metaphor works reasonably well and Bong uses it as the central driver of his narrative. The people in the back of the train are fed up at having nothing and revolt against the system that actively tries to keep them in their place – something our own class system also does very well (with programs like “the war on drugs” which effectively does nothing to lessen drug use, rather it efficiently keeps the poor centralized and impoverished). It also comments on the perception of the different classes. The people in the back of the train seem like honest hard working people who have just never been given a real chance, while those in front are more or less shown as ridiculous caricatures who lead frivolous lives.

In addition to the grand metaphor of the piece, Bong also does a good job making the film entertaining. The action scenes in particular are quite enjoyable, utilizing the great style of modern Asian fight sequences/choreography. Bong paces the film to continually move forward as well. There is narrative momentum, as Curtis and his people push their way up the train – each car offering something new. All this keeps the film engaging throughout.

The characters are overall reasonably well-done. It is easy for the audience to root for Curtis because of his station in life and drive to improve it. That is a very human want, relatable to everyone. The main supporting characters are not developed thoroughly, but are all given enough business to stand out and make an impression. They are each different enough to not blend together and feel bland.

Bong gives the audience almost everything they need: characters to root for and against, action scenes that are fun, interesting sci-fi themes, and a clear narrative goal; however, Snowpiercer has a few issues that take away from the film (although, I will say that these issues may not matter for many viewers; especially when the film is approached as pure entertainment). Mainly, the film seems to constantly test the limits of plausible believability and logical sense. There will be some spoilers that follow: characters seem to make decisions that make no sense – a few examples: Wilford claims that the train’s engine is a self-sustaining system and yet he requires children to perform tasks once equipment starts to breakdown. Eventually all the equipment will breakdown, which means that either Wilford is delusional about the future (due to some sort of religion-like mysticism surrounding the engine/system he has created) or just does not realize that this is not a permeate solution (due to mental detrition from prolonged isolation and claustrophobic conditions – it is probably a bit of both) . Either way, the train is eventually doomed. Namgoong Minsoo, the man who Curtis helps to escape from detention in exchange for helping him open the door between cars, also has his own plan. He believes that the weather outside is becoming warmer and that humans can now survive the elements. Thus, he wants to stop the train and go outside. This seems reasonable until his plan to do that becomes apparent. His plan is to forcefully blow the door off the train to both allow exit from the train and also to cause an avalanche to hasten the melting of the snow, the combination of which has an almost absolute probability of also destroying the train and all life onboard. Here again is the problem. His plan essentially leads to the end of humanity (just more rapidly than Wilford’s slow demise as things degrade).

But maybe this is the point of the film? Bong presents modern society though the microcosm of the train and then concludes that no matter what humanity is doomed regardless of its choices. When Curtis arrives at the engine, he has achieved his goal to reach the engine but his people have mostly been killed and it is clear that nothing will change onboard the train. All his effort is essentially fruitless. In humanity’s history the same is true. Regardless of wars, revolutions, technology, and so on, there has always been a global class system (although the percentage distribution of how many people inhabit each class shifts constantly up and down – though more or less holds its same overall shape). There are always those with a lot who oppress those with little. All the actions in the film thusly appear to be in vain, leaving the film lacking a meaningful resolution.

Bong’s ending showcases the train being wholly destroyed by the avalanche caused by Minsoo’s bomb on the train door; however, Minsoo’s daughter and another young boy survive and brave the cold together. They seem to be able to handle the chill, but Bong ends on a shot of a polar bear that notices the two young survivors.  Does the bear suggest that life can be sustained and goes on and that these two young people will work to repopulate the Earth or is the bear just going to eat them? It is unclear, as Bong leaves it open-ended. End of spoilers.

The logic of the film’s characters and ending will take many viewers out of the narrative. It seems to inherently make no sense, because it is contrary to our own survival instinct (something that is at our core as humans) and it is contrary to the initial premise – get to the front, make things better. It feels like a letdown on the promise of that premise.

Bong does employ what could have been an interesting twist to corrupt the initial premise, but by the time the twist is revealed it is too late. The narrative has already run its course and thus what could have been a powerful dramatic turn ends up making a minimal emotional impact on the audience (though, does effect Curtis’s final decisions).

Even more than the Snowpiercer’s character logic or the impotence of the twist maybe it is that the film feels a bit pointless at the end that is its greatest nemesis. Yes, it is entertaining and plays with some potent sci-fi themes and style, but if the audience feels indifferent at the end then it is all for nothing. Again, I do not think that everyone will be pulled out of the narrative by its issues, but they are prevalent enough to noticeability take away from the overall effectiveness and quality of the film as a whole.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Joon-ho Bong has a great style to his films. He does well garnering good performances and can also shooting engaging action. He has all the tools to make good films (like The Host and Mother); however, with Snowpiercer, he might have relied too much on trying to make a statement about humanity than actually making a fully compelling narrative, as the film completely loses all its momentum by the end and sort of goes out on a whimper. Even so, I am looking forward to seeing what he does next.

Marco Beltrami provides an adequate score that matches the tone of the film well. Kyung-pyo Hong’s cinematography is very good, as his lighting wonderfully gives the film a dystopian look and clearly differentiates each section of the train. Ondrej Nekvasil’s production design too is top notch. His sets for each section of the train are fantastic (I especially liked the school and the aquarium).

The cast is strong overall. Vlad Ivanov, Alison Pill, and Ewen Bremner are great is small supporting roles (each exhibiting a wonderful madness). Ah-sung Ko is good as Minsoo’s daughter Yona. She blends presumed-innocence with sudden maniacal brutality well. Tilda Swinton is brilliant as Mason, the mouthpiece for Wilford and the people in the front. Her whole character is so exaggerated and yet feels honest and dynamic, which speaks to her skill as an actress. Ed Harris sort of does his typical confident/unmovable yet slightly beaten down by circumstances authoritative figure performance with Wilford (it is something he does well and often). Kang-ho Song is great as Namgoong Minsoo. He gives the character a fun reluctant swagger. He does not seem to really care, but if pushed might be the toughest of them all (he sort of takes on the role type made famous by Charles Bronson’s character Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West). Chris Evans is very good as Curtis. He is sort of an everyman, which pulls the audience in and makes him relatable, but then he has a darker side and backstory to him, making him interesting.

Summary & score: Snowpiercer is ambitious and does a lot right, making it in many ways a good sci-fi film, but ultimately it loses too much momentum by the end and just sort of feels inconsequential in its final moments. 6/10

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