Movie Review: “Snowpiercer” Shocks and Awes

I grow restless with my media.

It’s a thing that I do.

As a teenager I would devour my books, video games, and movies with reckless abandon — especially my RPG’s and JRPG’s. Final Fantasy VII’s play clock maxes out at 59:99, so lord knows how many hours beyond that I plunged before saving up a million gil to afford my seaside villa. You know, in addition to saving the planet from Sephiroth and Meteor.

Like so many other stories I experience, once the end game was finally achieved, all that remained was this feeling of emptiness. When that void coincided with extra cash burning a hole in my wallet, I’d run out and buy some almost random book/movie/video game just to have something to focus on. It was during one of these fits of voidful consumer rage that I happened upon The Host (2006).

I was a freshman in college then, still pretty naive to the greater nuances of narrative techniques and the subtleties of satire and symbolism and all that blah blah blah. I was obsessed with zombies and horror and had recently discovered that the term and genre “kaiju” was actually a thing. A thing categorically defined by Godzilla in a lot of ways. The Host sounded and looked great: a monster born from river pollution plagues Seoul. Pretty much the only reason that I dropped the $20+ on Amazon was that it had 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. If a crowd-sourced rating website gave it that high a score, it had to be good, right?

Yup. That's a monster's mouth in the background.

“Kris is such an ugly b…oh no…she’s right behind me isn’t she?”

The film, directed by Joon-ho Bong is a hokey, campy, bizarre monster movie involving a lazy alcoholic uncle and an abducted little girl. My 17-year-old self was incapable of “getting it” at the time and my roommate and I wrote it off as a goofy movie with poor SFX. We hated it. It was over the top. Reading subtitles on a Korean film didn’t help. I admit this with great shame, because a movie like The Host is only good if you’re smart enough to appreciate it for what it is. At 17, I wasn’t smart enough. The subtleties of The Host soared right over my immature head and I lost the DVD a long time ago. So it goes. The point of this little tangent is to point out that in a lot of ways, we as a modern society consume our media like lazy, hungry 17 year olds: we just want something to fill the time that is exciting and fun. We aren’t necessarily looking for a smart, enriching tale that makes us think.

Joon-ho Bong is a director that does that, and unlike Christopher Nolan who can maintain mainstream popularity while doing that, Bong’s style can be kind of alienating.

Joon-ho Bong has this amazing capacity to craft characters that are at once relatable people that turn themselves into heroes by sheer willpower. If there’s one thing he champions as a director, then it is the power of free will. It is in this that he comes to feel a little bit like Ayn Rand in the execution of his philosophy. The movies he creates weigh on you heavily and they require a lot of time to digest; you can’t watch these things on a casual afternoon. You need to devote your entire attention and give yourself the time and space to mull it over because every moment and every gesture is carefully placed. You’ll wonder why something peculiar appears only to understand it an hour later when its relevance comes to the forefront of the story.

This, my friends, is perhaps my longest introduction to date, but one of the utmost importance. Joon-ho Bong’s recently released Snowpiercer is a bizarre masterpiece. It’s probably the best film of the year, but hardly anybody will see it. Why? For starters it’s a limited release. It’s sequences include an extravagant portrayal of violence and drug use. Perhaps most alienating of all are the heavy intellectual questions it raises and its emotional intensity. This isn’t just dystopian sci-fi. This is a parable detailing the battle for humanity’s soul.

But let’s back pedal a bit.

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Vaguely riding the wave of success that was Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Snowpiercer stars a more raggedy, bearded Chris Evans. Though he’s leaned out a bit, he still commands a formidable physical presence. Crossover nerds who love both Marvel and Doctor Who will also no doubt rejoice at the presence of John Hurt as a supporting character. They might even be glad to see Jamie Bell if they are nerdy enough to have actually enjoyed Jumper. But this is no superhero movie or lighthearted time traveling adventure. Snowpiercer is a dark, dark beast of a thing.

Set in the year 2031, Snowpiercer takes us aboard the titular train riding perpetually through an icy post-apocalyptic waste land. In 2014, the powers at be decided to dump a ton of chemicals in the atmosphere to combat global warming. Because the best cure for dumping too much chemicals into the atmosphere is to dump more, right? The disastrous results basically froze the entire world overnight. (Think The Day After Tomorrow cold. Or if Mr. Freeze‘s plan in Batman & Robin actually worked and he blasted the whole planet.) Fortunately enough for a fraction of the human population, an eccentric engineer by the name of Wilford designed a train that never stops moving and never needs to refuel.

Our story begins in the very last car, where the dirty and cramped freeloaders that snuck aboard the train at the last second are imprisoned. They live in their own filth and eat slimy protein blocks. The caste system is firmly established, with the wealthy front car residents thriving with whatever food they need want while hundreds live in squalor. Marcus (Chris Evans) is our fearless, bearded leader in the revolution against Wilford. He is a creature of action whereas the one-limbed Gillian (John Hurt) is the compassionate brains behind the operation. Though Marcus stubbornly refers to Gillian as the leader of the people living in the slums, everybody knows it is truly Marcus. It takes three quarters of a feature film for him to convince himself otherwise.

After some tense opening sequences, two young children are reaped from the tail residents for unknown reasons and the revolution sparks. They quickly overtake several cars and free security specialist Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho – the lead from The Host!). He and his daughter are drug addicts, demanding a drug called Kronol for each door they open for the rebellion. What ensues is a thrilling revolution as they keep pushing forward through dozens of cars. (Somewhere on line it says the train has a thousand cars, which seems unlikely. Rest assured, this is the biggest train you could imagine). The ensuing battles are intensified by the close quarters. The combat is brutal and riveting, and each scene is at once both dynamic and an absolute thrill. At times it peaks with great elegance.

Each car has its unique function and character. As Curtis leads his people forward, it begins to feel like a video game in a way. They employ new tactics and skills to get through each barrier and encounter more dangerous enemies. It’s like they’re unlocking new levels and even worlds. For some, it’s the first time they peer through a window to the outside. The further up-train they get, the more extravagant the amenities. Aquariums. Sushi bars. Schoolrooms. Rave clubs. Saunas. At least 85% of the train is every bit the Capital of The Hunger Games and the tail-end cars are all twelve districts shoved into one confined space.

Tilda Swinton as Mason, a leader in the front-train civilization

Tilda Swinton as Mason, a leader in the front-train civilization

Much of Snowpiercer feels like a collision of several different familiar stories. Depicted above, Mason (Tilda Swinton) is some kind of a leader among the train’s front-end peoples. Like everyone on the train, she has been conditioned to worship Wilford and even the train itself as gods. After a man assaults a guard, she oversees his punishment: his arm is pressure sealed outside the train for seven minutes, long enough for it to freeze solid enough to shatter with one whack of a sledgehammer. She is every bit a darker version of Effie Trinket.

The dystopian setting feels very much like a collision of the Matrix in its use of machinery and revolution with The Day After Tomorrow. I also mentioned Ayn Rand before, whose work offers yet another comparable use of revolutions and philosophy of the human will. But perhaps the most direct influence permeating through this story that I saw was that of Bioshock.

A brilliant man has a dream that many call mad, rooted in near impossible science and heavy machinery. His idyllic utopia is perverted into a violent dystopia where children are abducted and used for nefarious purposes. It’s up to our protagonist to put a stop to the madness and set everything right. Any fan of Bioshock who plays Snowpiercer will undoubtedly notice the resonance. I’m far from the only one that noticed. But it only furthers the notion that Snowpiercer is to very much a thrilling video game put into motion picture form, perhaps more effective than the other video-game-turned-movie of the summer, Edge of Tomorrow.

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One wonderful aspect to  Joon-ho Bong’s deft manipulation of his craft is his efficient use of time. Every gesture and every moment is meaningfully thought out. Someone will say or do something that makes zero sense to you, but rest assured: you will understand it before long. Whether it’s sixty seconds later or sixty minutes, the purpose of everything is made clear. Symbolism is leaking through every frame. Characters take on larger thematic meanings and their actions come to represent the interaction of said themes. When Curtis reaches out his hand, he’s not just Curtis.

In the end this video game infused adventure is obsessed with its own ending: of reaching the end of the car and taking over the engine. So often in life it is the supreme fault of man to focus on some end while forgetting that the journey we take will forever be the most important part. We as a media-consuming culture are so shallowly and vainly obsessed with this toxic idea of closure. We want the veil to be lifted. We want our questions answered. J. J. Abrams and his Mystery Box be damned! We ignore the soul-fulfilling capacity of Story to inspire and renew us. Maybe it has everything to do with our capacity to binge watch with the advent of on-demand streaming services. Maybe we’ve just always been like this.

Snowpiercer ultimately reminds us that there is another way out, that when you sink more than 60 hours into a video game just for the sake of completing it — or binge watch all of Breaking Bad in three weeks — you probably will feel empty. Not because the material itself lacks the capacity to inform our existence, but because you’re simply doing it all wrong. You’re focusing on that goal too much while neglecting everything along the way.

Snowpiercer shows us that while sometimes goals and life itself can be arranged like a video game, with its beginning and its end game, there is always another way: you can reject the status quo and create something new. And sometimes, that is what humanity needs the most.

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