Freezing the Competition
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
There are a few films that are made that renew one’s faith in the entire process of filmmaking during a summer where movies like Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Yes, Michael Bay is Producing This and Ruining Another Beloved Childhood Property exist. Ever since Steven Spielberg’s 1975 summer hit Jaws made everyone afraid of the water and ushered in the era of the summer blockbuster, the summer became the hotbed property of Hollywood money while Christmas became “I Want an Oscar” season. Summer films recently (for the most part), have been reduced to mindless fare with the occasional intelligent framing. Movies like Man of Steel, Transformers, and basically anything Adam Sandler makes these days often make summer feel more nuanced filmgoers starving for more intelligent fare. Enter Snowpiercer, based on the French comic book La Transperceneige. A film from the excellent South Korean director Bong Joon-ho (director of the excellent The Host), Snowpiercer did not receive a wide U.S. release because Harvey Weinstein wanted twenty minutes cut from the film because it “was too intelligent”. Well, that’s idiotic. Release issues aside, the film is phenomenal on every front. Visual-wise, the images of a frozen Earth are eerie (even if the CGI could have been more polished). The story is brisk and once the film gets going, it doesn’t stop for a single second (this is a film where you can’t take a bathroom break). The performances are excellent, from a nearly unrecognizable Chris Evans (Captain America), an equally unrecognizable Tilda Swinton (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), and a cast that includes Song Kang-ho, Go Ah-sung, Jamie Bell, Alison Pill, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, and Ed Harris. Everyone is fantastic.
Snowpiercer’s basic premise begins with a depressing plan to combat global warming. Energy corporations, while trying to keep their profits intact, release a ton of cooling chemicals into the air. In a classic “What could possibly go wrong?”, the coolants turn out to be far too much and the entire globe enters into another Ice Age, killing off most of humanity. Then we enter a never-ending train that houses the entirety of what is left of the human population and is segregated by class, the poorest at the tail and the wealthiest at the front. Enter Chris Evans as Curtis, an impoverished man who leads a revolution to get to the front. That’s essentially the film’s plot structure in a nutshell. And I won’t say more for the sake of spoilers.
Visually the film makes the most of its comparatively small budget, which stands at approximately $38 million. The CGI at times, especially outside compared to inside the train, needed polishing but the aforementioned budget prohibited that to a certain extent, no doubt. The exterior shots of the frigid Earth are striking, but the true artistic masterpiece is the inside of the train. The filmmakers and art departments make the absolute best use of Snowpiercer’s video game style. Each compartment is a different world, completely distinct from the one before it. As the heroes make their way through each of these compartments, the bizarre nature of Joon-ho’s world becomes more profound. Possibly the most visually striking of these worlds is the classroom. It is dystopian and profoundly disturbing to watch Alison Pill’s teacher and her students chant about how the maker of the train has saved them all. They might as well have added a giant dictator portrait as the wallpaper, but the scene is uncomfortable enough without it perhaps.
The performances are truly stellar and I would love some Academy Award nominations to come out of this film, even though I’m pretty sure that won’t happen, because it’s the Oscars. Chris Evans is spectacular as Curtis and is almost unrecognizable at first despite him being ubiquitous with the Captain America franchise. Tilda Swinton is AMAZING and her tour de force performance as Mason, one of the train’s controllers so to speak, is frankly one of the best I’ve seen all year. Swinton sinks her dentures into the role with such ferocity, it’s difficult to let go of her transformation throughout the entire journey. The supporting cast is phenomenal, from Song Kang-ho’s struggling father to Octavia Spencer’s hardened Tanya and everyone in between. Each actor buys into this intricate, bizarre, yet all so metaphorically true world, it’s hard as the audience not to get swept up into their characters.
Ultimately Snowpiercer functions as a giant metaphor for the extreme inequality that exists across the world, evident clearly here in the United States for example. A small minority in the top 1% have a gargantuan advantage when it comes to education, health care, access to political leadership, and so forth. When Mason says that everyone has a preordained place and that she belongs in the front and everyone around her belongs in the back, it isn’t just basic political oppression. It’s an ardently held belief that because she was born into the front of the train, that makes her better than those surrounding her and her microphone, demanding justice. It’s the same belief system that gave birth to the old adage of divine right to rule. Simply being born into a specific class system does not make one more special or more worthy of basic human comfort. But Mason and those that inhabit the front of the train are often subject to this train of thought throughout their lives (pun fully intended) and those that stand in front of them, covered in soot and hungry are poor victims. Yet they are not victims because of the injustice committed by those in the front of the train, they are victims of their own making because of their birth. No matter their intelligence, their drive, their ambition, or their kindness, they can never be elevated from where they are now. That is how the “fronters” see the rest of humanity and that’s why they are wrong. There is a human equivalence in opportunity, and taking that opportunity away from the majority simply because of their birth often leads to catastrophic consequences. Snowpiercer came out in the U.S. in limited release because of Harvey Weinstein’s inability to trust a product that is platinum. But if you can’t catch it in a local theater, it is available on multiple Video on Demand platforms such as iTunes and Google Play. Please go watch it, it’s worth every penny and every damned minute.
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Producer: Park Chan-wook, Lee Tae-hun, Park Tae-jun, Dooho Choi, Robert Bernacchi, David Minkowski, Matthew Stillman
Screenplay by: Bong Joon-ho, Kelly Masterson
Story by: Bong Joon-ho
Based On: Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, Jean-Marc Rochette
Starring: Chris Evansm Tilda Swinton, Song Kang-ho, Go Ah-sung, Jamie Bell, Alison Pill, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, and Ed Harris.
Music: Marco Beltrami
Cinematography: Hong Kyung-pyo
Editing: Steve M. Choe, Changju Kim
Production Company: Moho Films, Opus Picture
Distributers: Radius-TWC, (North America), CJ Entertainment (South Korea)
Running Time: 126 minutes
Release Dates: August 1, 2013 (South Korea), June 27, 2014 (United States)
Image Courtesy: Athena Cinema, Roger Ebert, Draft House, Culture Catch, IMP Awards