“Snowpiercer” Is the Movie of the Year, At Least So Far
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“Snowpiercer,” the first English-language film from Bong Joon-ho, Korean director of the international monster-movie hit “The Host,” gets off to a creaky start. It has a paper-thin comic-book premise whose logical consistency is best not examined too closely, and opens with one of those science-fiction information downloads, a pileup of simulated news footage and voice-over to explain how we arrived at the apocalypse. In this case, an effort to combat global warming has gone badly wrong, and the planet is trapped in a deadly deep freeze. Life on earth has apparently been extinguished, except for a handful of passengers packed onto a sort of rolling ark, a high-speed train that generates power as it circumnavigates the frozen globe.
So this is an elaborate dystopian parable and socioeconomic allegory, a horizontal caste system something like the Titanic on steel wheels, with an oppressed proletariat confined to the rear cars while the oligarchic rulers live in comfort, closer to the engine. Too elaborate by half, probably – but it’s what Bong does with that parable that makes the relentless, politically provocative and visually spectacular “Snowpiercer” the best action film of 2014, and probably the best film, period. This is a gripping and beautifully integrated adventure, not a star film, but Bong gets sensational work from a cast that features “Captain America” star Chris Evans as the train’s rebel leader, John Hurt as his aging mentor and Tilda Swinton as a hilariously dreadful factotum tasked by the train’s distant rulers with enforcing discipline and quelling dissent. (The terrific ensemble also includes Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris and Ewen Bremner.)
Asian genre filmmakers have a mixed record on this side of the Pacific, at best. One could write a dissertation on the checkered Hollywood career of John Woo, and someone probably has. It would have been much better for the legacy of “Oldboy” director Park Chan-wook if some trusted friend had told him to destroy all prints of the silly and lugubrious “Stoker.” Maybe it’s just snobbishness that leads me to conclude that Kim Jee-woon’s Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle “The Last Stand” is a whole lot worse than the unhinged action films he made in Korea, but I don’t think so. Bong’s story, at least so far, is very different. After an extended battle with Harvey Weinstein, who wanted to make extensive cuts in “Snowpiercer” to make it more accessible to American audiences, the director’s approved 126-minute version will be the only one released in the United States. Despite its big-budget special effects, “Snowpiercer” has a distinctly independent sensibility and an international pedigree (it’s defined as a Korean-American-French-Czech co-production, and was largely shot in the Czech Republic). Bong, who co-wrote the screenplay with Kelly Masterson (based on the French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige” by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette), displays some loyalty to his roots, working in juicy supporting roles for Korean stars Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung as a father-daughter team of drug-addicted daredevils, whose communication issues with the Anglophone passengers becomes a running gag.
After close to 15 years of locomotion around a lifeless planet – the nominal time period is the 2030s — life aboard Snowpiercer has assumed certain rhythms, and one of those is the persistence of class warfare and periodic outbreaks of resistance. As in the unfrozen world we live in, only violence by the poor against the rich is described as dangerous, while violence delivered the other way around is the normal course of events. In the filthy, overcrowded rear cars where Curtis (Evans), Edgar (Bell) and the cryptic, prophetic elder statesman called Gilliam (Hurt) are confined, anger is building toward another uprising. (Yes, the name of Hurt’s character is certainly a tribute to the director of “Brazil,” who will surely appreciate this movie.) Children are being kidnapped and taken forward for unknown purposes, and the general misery level has created what a Marxist might call revolutionary conditions. People are not literally starving, but they’ve reached a point when dying for the cause of freedom seems preferable to continued life in slavery.