Sure, a bleak Korean sci-fi film based on a French graphic novel, delayed for months while studio heads squabbled over whether or not to delete nearly 20% of it before letting Americans see it, doesn’t sound like the perfect star vehicle for Chris Evans, cinematic hero of this summer’s Captain America: the Winter Soldier. It’s certainly not a vote of confidence that the Weinstein Company compromised by leaving it intact but downgraded to a limited-release run with minimal advertising. In the hands of an unkinder corporation, Snowpiercer could’ve found itself sentenced with immediate relegation to the Walmart $5 DVD bin.
Thanks to exactly one theater in all of Indianapolis, last weekend I had the chance to witness one of the darkest, riskiest, most thought-provoking spectacles of the year. Considering the competition is mostly sequels, I’ll admit that’s not saying much.
Short version for the unfamiliar: In a world where well-meaning science overcompensated for ozone depletion and accidentally surrounded Earth in a layer of three zillion SPF sunblock, the last remaining humans survive permanent winter aboard the unlikeliest life-saving invention of all time, one long supertrain in perpetual motion on a worldwide railway at a speed of precisely one worldwide lap per year. Its innumerable cars fulfill different functions and purposes — some providing basic needs production, others squandering resources on needless yet in-demand indulgences. The upper class live nearer the engine; the dregs, toward the back.
Chris Evans, stylized and simmering in blackened emotional depth, is the tail section’s nominal leader who’s had enough, sees opportunity, and organizes one last revolution to leave their boxcar ghetto behind, take the engine, and steer humanity’s fate in a more merciful direction. All that’s standing between his rebels and liberty are all those other train cars and the surprises that live within.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: On the side of the underclass: Jamie Bell (now starring on AMC’s Turn) as the uppity, foul-mouthed rabblerouser; Academy Award Winner Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station, The Help) as a frightened mother that you do not want to tick off; a strung-out Ewen Bremner (Trainspotting, Alien vs. Predator) as a furious torture victim; Clark Middleton (Markham the curio shop owner from Fringe) as a sketch artist self-appointed to document what’s left of daily living; and the one and only John Hurt, missing a couple of limbs as the requisite sage.
On the side of the 1%: Tilda Swinton in intimidating dentures and my grandma’s old glasses as the uptight yet zany mouthpiece of The Powers That Be; Alison Pill (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) as a too-zestful schoolteacher who frames Hitler Youth methods in a morning-PBS veneer; and lurking in the background is frequent Oscar nominee Ed Harris with the keys to everything.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? The basic structure of Snowpiercer is the simple, classic gauntlet: survive from Point A to Point B and win the movie. Atop that is the obvious 1%-vs.-99% class warfare that was all the rage for a while after the last recession. But as the movie delves more deeply into the lives of the cast, origins are revealed, nuances emerge, and we discover exactly how humanity weathered the last seventeen years since The End — the sacrifices, the compromises, the hard choices, and a multitude of sins on all sides.
None of the characters took the easy road to live up to this point. Director Bong Joon-Ho doesn’t let the camera turn away or cut to jokey one-liners as confessions are made and horrible secrets are dredged up to the surface. Bottom line: when the world we know is over, happy endings will be few and far between.
(Granted, The Walking Dead makes that point regularly, but Snowpiercer has two advantages: a fully done-in-one story with a beginning, a middle, an end, and irreversible consequences; and I wasn’t actively wishing any of the characters would shuffle off and die.)
Nitpicking? One character evinces a precognitive power that explains two random lines of dialogue from a previous scene, introduces one needless line later in the same scene, and vanishes for the rest of the movie. Why they bothered with this digression, I have no idea.
As Our Heroes progress from one car to the next, some with zero resemblances to each other, one wonders why various radically dissimilar cars haven’t previously declared war on each other. One car in particular hosts the film’s most energetic sequence, a claustrophobic skirmish involving a silent thug army with pointy weaponry, but begs the question of exactly what purpose that car normally serves. Did the train’s designers intentionally keep it empty and label it “Fight Scene Car”?
One other odd, meaningless thing: the corporate brand for Wilford Industries, makers of the supertrain, resembles the WordPress brand. I’m sure there’re only so many ways you can art-design a capital W inside a circle, but its first appearance jolted this WordPress fan out of the movie for a few minutes.
So did I like it or not? Snowpiercer is grim, cerebral, exhilarating, exhausting, bold, silly, gross, and ultimately uplifting at enormous cost. That magical bullet train encapsulates the human experience at every station between fear and frivolity and dares you to walk the entire expanse without changing along the way. Good luck finding anything like that in your average three-hour product-placement marathons.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Snowpiercer end credits, though they do confirm that one shot of a live animal at a particularly meaningful juncture was not a total CG creation, but was in fact real animal footage borrowed from someone else. So that’s, I dunno, a one-off victory for realism in film, maybe.