Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Mystery Train

Chris Evans and Jamie Bell in Snowpiercer

When I first heard the premise of Snowpiercer (2014, directed by Bong Joon-ho), I thought it sounded ridiculous. I thought, actually, that it sounded like something that would show up on the SyFi channel. Still, the director gave me pause. This is the man who made Memories of Murder and Mother, after all, to say nothing of The Host. He's proven his chops both as a gifted director and as a gifted purveyor of genre entertainments.  And when you get right down to it, it's not a more ridiculous premise than, say, anything by Park Chan-Wook or Kim Ji-Woon. And then I heard that Harvey Weinstein wanted to slash twenty minutes out of it. Bong actually won that power struggle, but it limited the film's horizons. Seeing it at the earliest opportunity became for me a moral imperative. It turns out that my initial impression of the whole thing was correct: it's utterly ridiculous. It's also kind of awesome.

Note: here there be spoilers.

The premise finds the world plunged into a kind of Fimbulwinter when a solution to global warming goes horribly awry. All life is on Earth is extinguished except for the inhabitants of the Snowpiercer train, placed on a globe-spanning track by crazed industrialist, Wilford. If you bought a ticket on the train, you live well. If you didn't? If you live back in steerage at the end of the train? You're miserable and oppressed, subsisting on horrifying protein bars. The stratification of class along the length of the train breeds resentment, especially when the sinister forces of Mr. Wilford pluck children from their parents for some unknown purpose. The pot eventually boils over when Curtis and his friends decide to stage a revolution. Theirs is not the first. Previous attempts at revolution have ended badly. Curtis has a secret ally somewhere near the head of the train, though, who is delivering intelligence to aid him. The de facto leader of the dregs at the rear is Gilliam, a man who is short a few limbs. This is not an uncommon condition, given the punishment for resistance. The secret behind Gilliam's lost limbs is one of the film's central mysteries. He's been grooming Curtis for command. The plan calls for liberating the train's designer, Namgoong, who has been imprisoned, presumably, for addiction to Kronol, a byproduct of the train's engine processes. He can open the gates to the front. But in their way are the security forces of Mr. Wilford, commanded by the vicious Mason, who views Wilford as a god and views the dregs at the back as entirely expendable...

Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer

If it's not clear enough from a synopsis, this is an allegory. It's tempting to view Snowpiercer as a sci fi epic for the Occupy movement, but that's simplistic. It's certainly a critique of the increasing stratification of post-Capitalism as it slides back into feudalism, with each car of the train representing a stratum. It's also a film built on the uneasy bones of conspiracy theories. The "Oz the Great and Terrible" moment at the end of the film, in which Wilford tells Curtis that his rebellion is a culling of the herd, is a second cousin to the truther theory of 9/11. This film abhors the system, whether fascist, neo-liberal, neo-conservative, whatever you've got, though it reserves its scorn for one particular target. Wilford is a spot on parody of a Randian superman, right down to the railroad he owns. He's John Galt as sociopath (is this redundant? Probably). He's a right monster, who doesn't see human beings so much as he sees an ideological problem to be solved by violence and oppression. Snowpiercer inherits the Night of the Living Dead solution to the system and blows it all up. This is an anarchist's movie, in which the only sensible solution to a monstrous society is to completely destroy it and start from scratch. In the end, we're left with an Asian girl and an African-American boy as the new Eve and Adam, and a polar bear that probably wants to eat them both, but it's a better solution than the horror of the train.

Ko Ah-Sung in Snowpiercer

Still, this is an international film, so it's worth looking at with a global perspective. The cast is international in flavor and the allegory is slippery. It could just as easily read as an ordering of the global haves and have-nots fighting over dwindling resources on a planet hurtling toward its doom. It reminds me a bit of the question that Tilda Swinton's character in Only Lovers Left Alive poses: "Are they fighting about water yet or is it still about the oil?" Water is perceived as power in this film's taxonomy, and like all power, it proves illusory.

The setting of the film is uniquely structured for set pieces. Each train car as our heroes move forward presents a new environment with a new set of rules of engagement. In this, Snowpiercer recalls its origins as a graphic novel. You can view each new set as a panel border if you like. This is an elaboration of the scrolling corridor fight in Oldboy stretched to encompass most of the film. Certainly, the ax fight that's the film's most brutal and energizing set-piece seems derived from Oldboy. In spite of the film's structure, it doesn't seem episodic. It's all of a piece, with each part of the film forming a tile in a mosaic whose overall picture only becomes clear in the exegesis at the end. But even if it were as episodic as it sometimes seems, the individual pieces are all so touched with strangeness that it would still be worth watching. If the structure of the film seems looted from other films, then the excressences that decorate that structure are Bong's alone, whether it's Mason's appearance and her odd hand gestures (also part of the exegesis at the end), the big fish into whose guts Wilford's thugs dip their axes at the start of the ax fight, the ghastly punishment meted out to dissidents involving the freezing wind and a big sledgehammer, the seeming clairvoyance of Namgoong's daughter (which provides the film with one of its best shocks), Allison Pill's homicidal teacher and her creepy pedagogy. or the sushi bar mid-train where our heroes and the film take a short rest mid-film before plunging toward the climax. All of this marks the film distinctively. There's a whiff of steampunk in some settings, while there's a resplendent miserablism in others. None of these settings necessarily reads as "real," but for the most part it doesn't matter. This is a fable more than it's a story in the conventional Hollywood sense of the word, so the set of reality is permitted some level of abstraction.

John Hurt in Snowpiercer

The weirdness of the production extends to its characters, none of whom is a familiar type. This is something that carries over from Bong's previous films, in which the characters--even the leads played by bona fide movie stars--tend to be eccentrics. In this regard, Song Kang-ho is something of a talisman, linking this film to Bong's Korean-language films and beyond. Song has specialized in playing doofuses and eccentrics with hidden depths and he brings that anima to Namgoong, who, like most of the characters in this film, has a hidden agenda. Bong brings Song's co-star from The Host, Ko Ah-Sung, along for the ride, too, and turns her into an anime-style psychic girl, just for the hell of it. The rest of the cast are possessed of interesting faces made even more interesting by the make-up and hair design. Tilda Swinton's Mason is a broad burlesque of a fascist bureaucrat, with her round coke-bottle glasses and bad dentures, while John Hurt seems like some kind of post apocalyptic sage as Gilliam. Hurt has made a career of dystopias at this point, so his part here isn't much of a stretch. Where the film really turns things on their head is with Chris Evans's leading man. Evans brings the caché of the Marvel films with him. He's a freaking superhero in this film, too, as much as he is in Captain America, and then the film gives him a monologue at the end that completely torpedoes that image. That this film has given us a hero who knows what babies taste like is downright baroque in its grotesquerie. That the film doesn't completely lose the audience at this point is one of its more impressive tricks.

Chris Evans and Song Kang-Ho in Snowpiercer

Part of its success in conveying its allegory derives from a deep well of mythology. This taps into primal images, whether it's the man with the torch running toward the battle in the darkness or the tale of how Gilliam came to lose his arm. These have a whiff of fairy tale to them. Certainly, the idea of an endless winter at the end of the world is one of the oldest Norse myths. The world is destroyed in movie after movie these days, but rarely does the eschatology of these films strike the deep atavistic chords Snowpiercer plays. As absurd as the film is, its stakes always seem meaningful.

Snowpiercer has some of the genetics of a blockbuster--in an alternate universe, this film is the must-see movie of the summer.  It's the weirdness of it that has doomed it in the short term, but this is a film built to last regardless of its commercial prospects. Box office is only one kind of success, after all. This is a film that's going to stick around in the cultural massmind, more than most of the other big movies of the summer of 2014, I think. Are cult films still a phenomenon? If they are, this is surely one.

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1 comment:

Dan Heaton said...

I just watched Snowpiercer on Wednesday, and it's easily one of the most interesting films that I've seen in a long time. While it covers some complex themes that you describe very well, it's also such a visceral experience. The brutal hand-to-hand fight works much better than the usual action sequences, and the stakes feel so high right to the end. Just brilliant!