Dir. Joon-ho Bong
Korean writer-director Joon-ho Bong often has our delicate planet’s eco-system at heart. More precisely, it is his eye on how we function in the microcosm we live in as dictated by the uncontrollable outside influences of disruption and chaos. In Snowpiercer, based on a French graphic novel, he’s found an entire society inside a train - a “clanking arc” that carries the world’s survivors round and round after a devastating attempt at curing global warming. It’s a well-realised playground, perfectly suited for the uniquely kinetic visual style that Bong has. A grand microcosm.
It’s been a hotly anticipated film. Joon-ho Bong has been on a roll since making his international presence known with Barking Dogs Never Bite in 2000. Every three years or so since then he’s made films that are either flat-out masterpieces (Memories of Murder) or verging on it. Snowpiercer is his first real international cast and production and it might explain some of the issues it has trouble overcoming - but mostly these issues seem built in to the story.
At it’s heart, Snowpiercer is a jail-break film. In this case, structured something like a video game - the characters have to get from the oppressive, totalitarian back section of the train to the front of the train, in order to bring democracy to this society, while solving some problem or defeating some big bad at each carriage. Along the way we learn more about the nature of this super-train and the motivations of the creator, who resides in the holy engine compartment.
Previous to this, Bong has excelled at stories of grief and justice and how they can change people. These themes are certainly present here and I don’t want to say that Chris Evans, our main hero in the film, is unable to carry these themes - Evans gives a better performance than he’s allowed to in the Marvel movies and is surrounded by seasoned ringers like Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris and the always nearly unrecognizable Ewan Bremner on top of Bong regular Kang-ho Song - but his hero’s journey just doesn’t resonate the way it should.
Listing off those names, it may indeed be an issue that there are too many players involved. This grand microcosm may simply have too many stories to tell. Or too many stories not to tell. While we do get a reveal into Chris Evans’ introduction and early life on the train, we get no insight on those who rose to live outside of the caboose. I don’t mind having a main character who isn’t the most interesting person on the train but why not give a glimpse into how Tilda Swinton became the monster she is? I agree that the scariest monsters are the seemingly unmotivated ones but it is easy to imagine how the oppressed ended up in the caboose - less so about how the oppressors ended up in their roles.
But let’s not get mired down in the negative as there are plenty of scenes that I’m sure fans will rejoice in. As I mentioned, this arena gives the always playful Joon-ho Bong plenty to do. One train compartment reveals a waiting horde of seemingly blind axe-men - a feat to overcome made more difficult by the train entering a tunnel. A compartment of school children turns from informative to deadly. And there is something to the stinging ending. But now that I think of it, I can’t come up with another.
There are isolated moments throughout that always keep the viewer interested but these failed to make me feel anything other than diminishing results. John Hurt’s character in the film is called Gilliam and there’s no hiding Terry Gilliam’s influence on this film’s art design. This wouldn’t be so dispiriting in someone else’s film (it makes me think I was perhaps too harsh on The Double) but this is the guy who did The Mother and The Host - come on, let’s see something new!
I honestly doubt Joon-ho Bong will ever make a movie that isn’t worth seeing and I recommend the film to any curious fans because it is something of a technical achievement despite its flaws. Ultimately, this is an entertaining train ride and I hope The Weinstein Company does right with its distribution. I’m sure they see the issues as well as anyone - but goddamnit, this is Joon-ho Bong and he should live and die by his own sword.