Academy Awards Bong Joon-ho

Stream Oscar Season Now: Snowpiercer Review

Thursday, October 16, 2014 Rob Samuelson

It's Academy Awards season. Halfstack's resident film critic, Rob Samuelson, has been hard at work catching up on many of the year's most important movies through on-demand and streaming services.  You all want a great top 10 list, don't you? As a way to join in the fun, read his reviews of movies you can see right now on a variety of platforms. First up, this summer's Snowpiercer, now available to rent on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Prime, and YouTube.

I can't use copyrighted material here according to our blogging service, so enjoy my artistic rendition of the movie.

Director: Bong Joon-ho
Writers: Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson
Starring: Chris Evans, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Kang-ho Song, Ed Harris

Anytime a powerful body starts making claims about the necessity of everyone knowing their rightful place, they should be viewed with supreme skepticism and, sometimes, outright opposition if their policies begin to demean, subjugate, and effectively dehumanize the less powerful. But these policies often spring from the minds of those looking to preserve something about humanity, and in their fear, stress, and yes, sometimes greed, their choices can become hellish. That doesn't mean their initial urge to protect the system was necessarily wrong, but an unquestioning faith in a system or ideology leads one to miss its imperfections and cause problems. Those not in power aren't always altruistic victims, either, often making choices for survival that are contrary to any human decency. And if, by some miracle of chance, the roles get reversed, the allure of power almost always prevails. In Snowpiercer, director Bong Joon-ho – in his American filmmaking debut – explores these themes to their wrenching logical ends, never losing control of any aspect of cinematic storytelling in the process.

In the decades following the worldwide climate collapse, caused by a catastrophic decision to flood Earth's atmosphere with a cooling chemical, what's left of humanity resides on a gigantic train, the Snowpiercer of the title, barreling through an uninhabitable tundra. Like in any social system, winners and losers emerge in this deal. The wealthy, the opulent, the gilded reside up front, with all the markers of high society bestowed on them. Snowpiercer shows how they are probably not bad people, per sé, rather blissfully lucky and unwilling to lose the relatively nice situation they've found themselves occupying.

But they're not Bong Joon-ho's primary concern. He's worried about the lowest ebbs of the order, those at the back of the train, greedily consuming – eating is not the right word for it – bars of gelatinous protein and biding their time to move up in the world by force if necessary, and those tightening their grasp of power at will. The back of the train world is reminiscent of a nightmarish coal mine, dank, frozen, barren yet overcrowded. Worse, the train's overseers, headed up by a gleefully twisted Tilda Swinton, don't show any kindness when these poor creatures get out of line, like opposing the theft of their children for reasons they aren't aware of. Questioning in any way the logic or morality of the powered leads to torture-as-public-service-announcement, a way of saying, “We're in charge – The More You Know.” Limbs are lost, the children are taken anyway, and Chris Evans's Curtis, the caboose's reluctant leader, begins an assault to upend the social order and take control of the train's undying engine.

What follows is one of the most functional films in recent memory. Every train car takes a different shape, the colors and costumes change dramatically, Joon-ho's camera moves more fluidly to take in an aquarium and rigidly in a claustrophobic, yellow steam room when the cronies of power are bearing down on their diminishing rebellion.

But it's not just production design and camera movement that makes Snowpiercer such a strong film from a pure cinema standpoint. Joon-ho has one of the deftest hands in modern movies at dispensing vital plot points. Characters mention a threat, the train's constructor and conductor, Wilford (Ed Harris), but they don't need to explain his role to each other. They already know. In a lesser filmmaker's work, the characters would say something clunky like, “Wilford, the man who built this vessel and has kept us in chains for years.” But Joon-ho understands this is silly and unnecessary. At Wilford's first mention, we get a statement of purpose from Curtis to kill him and a subtle tilt pan up to a Wilford Industries emblem forged on the walls behind him. This tells the audience everything they need to know about who this man is, and what he stands for has already been established by the brutality of his army. It doesn't talk down to the audience with momentum-crushing exposition, but it realizes it's also not the type of movie that can thrive by willfully obscuring information from the audience, either. Joon-ho finds the perfect use of his visual medium to explain who the MacGuffin-villain is. It is the simplest, most efficient way to impart these useful messages and it almost never happens in movies. This should be taught in introductory film classes.

Joon-ho's staging and fight choreography changes throughout the journey, too, never once relying on a trick multiple times. There are blunt object brawl-a-thons, gun fights, stabbings, a bit of parkour, and one central set piece in the middle of the train involving an army of ninja-reminiscent men donning night vision goggles and cutting the lights. Besides the stunning technical nature of the fight sequences, this violence always derives from or informs character motivation while working as their own miniature narratives. Losses are cut, eyes are kept on the prize, order is instilled, and personal spite enters the equation multiple times to raise the stakes higher.

Evans's superhero film background has prepared him well for those fight scenes, but where he truly matters to the film is in his quiet moments. He's wracked with guilt over the horrific things he did as a younger man, the ways he pushed aside his basic humanity for sustenance. The rage in his eyes can almost scorch through the final door to meet his adversary. But it's not just rage at Wilford. It's a cancer inside him, growing because he allowed it. He had the chance to say no to his urges and keep his dignity and goodness intact, but the situation corrupted him. He is livid at himself and the world for what those two entities combined to make him do.

But even the darkest of pictures need some levity. Swinton is the perfect slippery public face of the Snowpiercer, always looking for the positive, propagandized spin on things to keep the caboose people in check. The noises that come out of her when things startle her are hilarious, and her constant clumsy self-preservation provides many of the film's laughs. Ditto Kang-ho Song's drug addict security expert and his daughter (Ah-sung Ko), who can't stop sniffing noxious bits of what amount to large wads of gum while performing dangerous, complex tasks, always asking for more as a pat on the head for a job well done.

If there is one qualm with this film, it is the unnecessary clairvoyance angle Joon-ho takes with Ko's character. She can see the future but is unable to stop it, noticing several threats before they arise and then watching in horror as they commence anyway. A supernatural subplot doesn't make much sense here, given the hard sci-fi trappings of the setup. It doesn't work and it isn't integral to these characters reaching the engine room. The movie could have cut these mentions of her powers, lost maybe two minutes of screen time, and been just as functional in the end.

But that minor quibble aside, Snowpiercer is an extraordinary piece of cinema. It's gorgeous, with unending innovation in mise en scéne, framing, and camera movement. It wrestles with some of the biggest themes we have to contemplate in society – how to treat each other and what is fairness – and lets these themes embody actors perfectly suited to personify them. Bong Joon-ho is a modern master.

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