By Preston Wilder
Two armies meet, ready to fight. We’re on the Snowpiercer, an enormous train snaking around a freezing-cold, uninhabitable world, carrying the sole survivors of an icy apocalypse. Two armies meet, Wilford’s stormtroopers (Wilford is the unseen eminence who built, and runs, the train) versus a rabble of rebelling peons from the so-called “tail section”. The soldiers have axes and knives, the rebels have staves. They stand there, nose to nose and muscle to muscle. Then someone produces … a fish.
Why a fish? That’s not entirely clear. It’s quite a big fish. It may be a catfish. (I don’t know much about fish.) The fish gets pierced with a knife, and blood flows significantly – but in fact the fish is unimportant. I offer it only as a kind of significant detail, a typical moment in this grandly ambitious, often ridiculous, finally stunning sci-fi drama.
What films does Snowpiercer resemble? Hard to say, since it tends to shape-shift – inevitably so, given the fact that Curtis (Chris Evans) and his rebels must advance from one end of the train to the other, from the “tail section” where they live in misery to the “front section” where Wilford guards the sacred, life-giving Engine. The premise of a two-tier world divided into haves and have-nots recalls recent sci-fi like Elysium – but there’s also a wise man named Gilliam (played by John Hurt) and Terry Gilliam’s films, especially Brazil, come to mind in the mixture of imaginative visuals and some broad comic acting. Each new compartment sets a slightly (or not so slightly) different tone, from the mere addition of daylight to the wild shifts inherent in going from a dungeon to a greenhouse to a sushi bar to a primary school to a nightclub.
The train contains the whole world; it’s a “rattling ark,” as a caption puts it. Snowpiercer, too, contains a world of possible movies. (The other recent film it recalls is David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, a series of encounters in a closed space culminating in a florid verbal showdown.) It comes mired in behind-the-scenes controversy, as its US distributor Harvey Weinstein refuses to release it in English-language markets until 20 minutes have been chopped out – and it’s easy to see why the film might seem ‘too much’ to a money-man like Weinstein. His only mistake lies in thinking that the problem can be solved by chopping, as if the film were too long. It’s not. It’s the whole vision – by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho – that’s ‘too much’.
How much is too much? You can tell just by watching. Some of the episodes don’t work at all; the primary school, with kiddies singing songs about the Engine and Alison Pill as a preternaturally chirpy teacher, comes close to being embarrassing. But the film’s penchant for absurd, surprising touches (like the aforementioned fish) is also its genius. The battle with the soldiers unexpectedly pauses when the train hits the Yekaterina Bridge – at which point the soldiers stop fighting, raise their axes in unison and shout “Happy new year!”. (The bridge is the equivalent of Dec. 31, the point where another year is marked in Snowpiercer’s unchanging journey.) As Wilford wryly puts it, it’s “easier to survive on this train with some level of insanity”.
The actors are game, from Captain America himself (who gets a big dramatic speech and just about brings it off, partly through being artfully underlit) to Tilda Swinton as a grotesque apparatchik with false teeth – though in fact she goes a smidgen too far into cartoonish. The whole film is constantly on the brink of toppling over, but it’s saved by the visuals and Bong’s filmmaking chops. His style is confident, unafraid of baroque touches like a bright yellow jacket in the midst of tail-section grime. A single shot – dwelling on Curtis as an abstract figure slicing through space, with a touch of slow-motion – turns a battle into a ballet. The climax is notably intense, not just numbingly spectacular as in most Hollywood action films. There’s a moment near the end when you glimpse fire and snow in the same shot – and it typifies Snowpiercer’s strengths, its dynamic range and ability to go from one extreme to another.
I don’t know if the film is saying anything terribly original. As Wilford and his minions keep repeating, the train (like the world) is an ecosystem that depends on everyone knowing their place, keeping – or being kept – to their “allotted station”: the haves nibbling sushi at the front, the have-nots eating black gelatinous “protein blocks” at the back. Anything else would be anarchy. The social-justice angle is familiar – though in fact the ending is as bold as the rest of it, hinting that humanity may not, in the end, be worthy (or capable) of a life beyond this controlled society. Snowpiercer is a grand folly that’ll often make you cringe, yet it demands to be seen. “A blockbuster production,” purrs Wilford, speaking of his own fiendish plan, “with a devilishly unpredictable plot”. Something like that.
DIRECTED BY Bong Joon-ho
STARRING Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt
Includes some dialogue in Korean.
South Korea/US 2013 126 mins