In order to combat global warming, various nations on the planet decide to inject the atmosphere with a coolant. The film opens with a bright blue sky, and three planes careening by far above, leaving behind a white trail of this stuff. The coolant works better than originally planned. As a matter of fact, it is a disaster. The world is plunged into an Ice Age in a matter of months, and all life on earth (well, almost all) is eradicated. Ice and snow covers the land. Thankfully, an industrial wizard named Wilford has invented an “eternal train,” a train that circles the globe endlessly, cutting through the snow and ice, somehow transforming it into water for the people on board. The train rattles through the icy landscape. It is longer than any train on earth today. It is broken up into sections, similar to what was going on on the doomed Titanic, with third-class passengers barricaded in the belly of the ship. There are the huddled masses who live in squalor in “the tail” of the train, and they are loomed over by soldiers holding machine guns. Population control is paramount. Babies are born on the train (the train has been hurtling around the globe for 17 straight years), and sometimes the crowd needs to be thinned out. And it is. Brutally. What is going on in the head of the train? Nobody knows. The sections of the train are locked off by a series of gates. There’s no way to get through them.
This is the premise of Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer (based on a graphic novel). I have loved Bong Joon Ho’s work for years, and his devotion to genre pictures (his Memories of Murder is one of the best police procedurals I have ever seen). The Host was superb, a great monster movie. Mother was devastating, and it also was a nod to multiple genres, and it featured one of the best performances that year (or, hell, any year) by Hye-ja Kim. He’s a glorious film-maker, audacious, clever, visceral, with a hardy and talented group of regulars. I look forward to whatever he does. Snowpiercer arrived in theaters a couple weeks ago with a lot of baggage attached to it. Bong Joon Ho had been in a protracted war with Harvey Weinstein who wanted to cut 20 minutes out of the film. Bong Joon Ho dug his heels in. Weinstein finally relented, and the film is being released in its full version, but bratty Weinstein retaliated by giving it a very limited release in theaters. So it’s hard to find. It’s outrageous and unfair. It’s been playing for a couple of weeks now at only a couple of theaters in Manhattan. When Tilda Swinton spoke at EbertFest, she RAVED about the experience of making the film, and RAVED about the whole concept, and it made me excited to see it.
Dystopian universe? Familiar landscape made strange and scary by ice as far as the eye can see? The dirty rabble bonding together in order to storm the front of the train? A comment on totalitarianism? Fascism? Moral and ethical questions? And, oh yeah, one of the hottest guys who has ever walked planet earth, frozen or not?
Count me in.
It could have been horrible. It could have been Battlefield Earth. Or Waterworld. But not with Bong Joon Ho at the helm. Snowpiercer is fantastic. The situation is so otherworldly, but the actors play it all grounded in such reality that there are sequences so tense I found it nearly unbearable. It’s got it all. It’s got a hot dirty guy being all moral and tormented and brave and a reluctant Leader. It’s got Octavia Spencer doing a fight scene. Brilliantly. She kicks ass, she’s heartbreaking, she’s tough, she’s vulnerable. It’s got a surprise bit of casting that I actually managed to not know before I went into it (the guy who plays Wilford), and so when the mysterious Wilford is revealed, like Oz behind the curtain … it was a gasp of recognition and excitement.
It’s got Joon Ho regular Song Kang-Ho, so great in Memories of Murder and The Host, as “Nam,” a crazy wild-haired engineer who was originally hired to maintain the multitude of gates in the train before being shunned and put into a sort of cryogenic state, because basically he knew too much. He’s such a strange and powerful actor, a great listener, and phenomenal physically. He’s a big barrel-chested blurpy guy, and seeing him in action is to feel an actual threat of danger.
Huddled at Nam’s side, is his wide-eyed nearly feral daughter Yona (Ko Ah-Sung), who is known as a “train baby”, born on the train, her whole life spent on the train.
When we first meet the passengers in the tail, we understand that a plan is already afoot to storm the gates. The plan is to somehow get through all the gates until they reach the head of the train. Because whoever controls the engine, controls the train. Curtis (the aforementioned hot Chris Evans) says, “We control the engine, we control the world. Without that, we have nothing. All past revolutions have failed because they couldn’t take the engine.”
Okay, you talk like that, and you have MY love and attention, big boy.
Curtis has two co-conspirators who help plan the revolution, one being the one-legged, one-armed Gilliam (hat tip to Terry and “Brazil” perhaps?) – played by John Hurt, and one being a tough English kid named Edgar (Jamie Bell, who was so awesome in Nymphomaniac, Vol. II). They come up with a plan. And hell, it is ingenious. But how to make it happen when they are loomed over by guards, when they are tortured at will to teach the crowd a lesson, when they are never left alone?
On occasion, a representative from Wilford Industries stalks into the “tail” of the plane to give the huddled dirty masses a pep talk/threatening monologue. This is Mason, played by a nearly unrecognizable Tilda Swinton. She is clearly terrified of the mob in front of her, probably hates what they smell like, and tries to be both friendly and threatening at the same time, which makes the overall effect tremendously awkward. It’s a beautiful piece of pantomime, this character. She is not suited to authority, and yet isn’t that so often the case, those who have power just don’t have the stomach or character for it. She’s a reprehensible character.
The train barrels along over treacherous mountain passes, with dizzying abysses below, it plunges into long tunnels, it crashes through ice in its way. There are some CGI effects used in these train sequences and I found them haunting and beautiful, not too slick, but just enough to give us a sense of the true scope of the damage out there.
The not-knowing what is up in the front of the train, the fact that nobody has ever left the tail, adds to the tension of the slow move forward. They are moving into the unknown. And what they find, as they progress through each car, is increasingly strange, increasingly bizarre … You won’t believe it until you see it. And even when you see it, you won’t believe it.
The production design of the film is unbelievable. The entire thing takes place on a train, so each “set” for each car is a certain width. Bong Joon Ho and his production team clearly reveled in those limitations, and never once do you forget that you are on a train. Because of the Ice Age, things have gone extinct. When Nam is brought out of his frozen state, he pulls out a battered pack of cigarettes, only two left. The crowd looking on is agog. There are no more cigarettes in their world. Octavia Spencer breathes, as though she is in the presence of the Holy Grail: “Marlboro Lights?” When Nam lights up, the entire crowd leans in to get a whiff of second-hand smoke, a welcome and funny tonic to the attitudes towards smoking today. There are no more bullets, as well, so that calls into question the shot guns held on the people in the tail, and also means they have to improvise when it comes to their own weaponry. When the huddled masses fight back, they have to use tools, and axes, and pipes, and sometimes, thrillingly, torches, hurtling them across the train to the enemy. It’s brutal and medieval, chaotic and bloody.
I just have to give a shout-out to all of the actors, as well as the massive stunt doubles, because these fight scenes are terrifying, and completely lacking in the glitter and gleam of CGI superhero violence. It looks like it’s really happening. It looks like at any second the axes will crash through the windows, letting in the deathly freezing air. It looks like actors could possibly be getting actually hurt. They’re NOT, but that’s how real it looks. The frame is filled, end to end, with violence, mob on mob violence, all contained in the walls of a little train careening over a mountain pass.
All of this could seem quite silly. Maybe it is. It sure hit me in the sweet spot though. It’s earnest, in the best sense. It’s earnest in the way all disaster movies are, cliffhangers involving a group of disparate people trying to get out of a burning building, or trying to survive a plane crash, or trying to band together against a common foe. The actors are all on the same page with their creator and with the material. It is a life-or-death struggle, first of all, but it is also a struggle to insist that we, as humans, get to CHOOSE how we live, or how we die. Maybe there’s a way to live out there in the tundra if they were allowed to figure it out for themselves. Maybe there’s a chance. Or maybe they’ll all die. But that should be up to the individual.
It’s worth it, too, to find it … if you can … playing on a big screen. The visuals are unbelievable.