Snowpiercer may not be the masterpiece that its pedigree had predicted for it, but it can’t be denied that Bong Joon-ho’s dystopian Neo-Marxist blockbuster certainly believes in itself. Less of a broad critique on capitalism than it is an amusingly sad and sobering illustration of how rigid power structures are sustained by inertia rather than progress, Snowpiercer is a blockbuster testament to how impossible it is to innovate if we’re all moving on rails. Here’s a film that has become hugely anticipated in the Western world by virtue of existing beyond it – a healthily budgeted collaboration between a visionary Korean auteur, and a stacked cast of international movie stars (including Captain America, himself), Snowpiercer is like watching a typical Hollywood action movie reflected against a funhouse mirror. It looks and sounds similar to the thoughtless garbage churned out by our studio system (noticeably cheaper, though), but it’s also dark, overtly political and profoundly weird.
As the protracted and public battle over the film’s American cut has made gallingly clear, that shit just won’t fly in the States. Conventional wisdom suggests that Harvey Weinstein and his ilk are cynically convinced that American audiences don’t want to be disturbed by the spectacles they’re sold, but the truth of the matter is that the distributors don’t care to find out.
The film industry has never been more volatile and uncertain, and thus sustainability has never been so lustily desired. Everybody wants a windfall, but even Harvey Weinstein needs to sleep at night. If nothing else, Snowpiercer is a valuable reminder of the one truth that’s shared between fixed power structures of all kinds: the destination isn’t important, all that matters is that the train never stops.
The year is 2031, an irrelevant plot device designed to combat global warming by lowering the Earth’s average temperature has backfired horribly (as such things always seem to do,) and the last surviving humans are riding out the next ice age on a train that endlessly snakes around the planet. “The Rattling Ark”, as it’s briefly referred to in the beginning of the film, is the brainchild of a mysterious figure named Wilford, a character so transparently indebted to Ayn Rand that he must have slipped from the pages when Atlas shrugged. Wilford’s prized locomotive, which is powered by an eternal engine and circumnavigates the planet exactly once per year, protects its inhabitants from the uninhabitable tundra outside.
But the cabins of the train are almost as dangerous as the sub-zero temperatures that surround them. Snowpiercer was conceived as a perfect microcosm of the classist stratification that exists in contemporary capitalist societies – the rich ride in the front, the poor ride in the back, and an elaborate series of gates divide them in order to keep the system in check. The train is always moving, so everyone is born into their stations. Wilford keeps tabs on the action from his quarters at the head of the slender ark, watching over his self-sustained capitalist empire as it stretches for miles like an uncoiled Panopticon on rails.
Things are dire for those in the caboose, who are forced to live off of black gelatinous protein bricks (which actually look quite tasty) and are often subject to the merciless whims and tortures of visiting dignitaries from the front. But before you can say “ragtag group of reluctant heroes,” Curtis (Chris Evans), Edgar (Jamie Bell), Tanya (Octavia Spencer), Namgoong (the great Song Kang-ho) and some redshirts have hatched a plan to break through the cars, reach Wilford, and restore some degree of equality.
And so begins a refreshingly linear lateral journey, an imperfect cross between Bioshock and The Hunger Games that happens to be adapted from a French graphic novel that preceded them both. Snowpiercer is but the latest project to prove that dystopias and real estate abide by the same golden rule: location, location, location. From the sweltering rice paddies in Memories of Murder to the labyrinthine Seoul sewers that hid The Host, Bong has always expressed a gift for getting the most out of his locations, and Snowpiercer’s eponymous train is by far the film’s greatest attribute (at least of the non-Swinton variety). The individual carriages benefit from ingenious production design, each of the various environments (a classroom, a nightclub, an aquarium, etc.) succinctly distilling an isolated capsule of our culture.
But the train is ultimately such a cohesive and believable ecosystem less because of its flourishes than how Bong shoots them. While it must have been tempting to dissect the sets into cross-sections, Bong’s camera stubbornly refuses to violate the claustrophobic geometry of the narrow train cars, visually reinforcing how defined and unyielding the path is from one end of Snowpiercer to the other. The slender dimensions of Wilford’s ark endure that the action scenes, while somewhat few and far between, are instilled with the wild chaos of all class warfare, the combatants only distinguished by their clothes.
While Bong elegantly bends the narrative in order to enhance our spatial understanding of the train (quite literally, in one shootout) it still feels as though we’re being cheated of a more nuanced tour through this world. Like a videogame that hasn’t been sufficiently populated with NPCs, the locomotive is so empty of other people that the film’s socio-economics eventually strain to support even the flimsiest political allegory. Naturally there can only be so many members of the 1%, but representatives of the bourgeois are so few and far between that the passengers – or the lack thereof – threaten to gut the film of the same texture that the train works so hard to provide. While it’s never a good idea to presume what production problems may have been responsible for a film’s failings, Bong has gone on the record to discuss the shoot’s accelerated schedule, and as our heroes zip through the various cabins it’s tempting to imagine where sacrifices may have been made, entire sequences potentially ditched as easily as an unclasped car. On the other hand, the sacrifices made to the CG are perfectly plain to see, the ice outside of the train stuttering off the tracks in glaringly artificial chunks.
More distracting still is the cringeworthy dialogue that litters Kelly Masterson’s script, his first since Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. The worst of it is crammed into the deceptively dreadful opening act, during which Chris Evans says things like “control the engine, control the world” (oh fuck not The fucking World Engine…) and “I’m not a leader,” even though he’s obviously a leader because they don’t give cheekbones like that to lackeys. And yet, there’s a bold and risky gambit at play here – while the film never explicitly calls attention to this idea, there’s good reason to believe that the first few chapters of the story are deliberately generic. Which is not to suggest that the opening act is bad on purpose, only that its ultimately unpardonable badness nevertheless possesses a knowing quality, which retroactively serves the themes of the film even if it doesn’t necessarily serve its audience.
But even at its worst, Snowpiercer has an ace up its sleeve, a secret weapon that immediately and completely overwhelms any other concerns. Two words – one shapeshifting, vaguely erotic elemental being: Tilda Swinton. Swinton – who has at least one more perfect performance to her credit this year in Only Lovers Left Alive – plays Mason, Wilford’s slimiest stooge. Like Effie Trinket crossbred with a demented librarian rabbit, Mason and her pudding-thick Yorkshire accent descend upon steerage to punitively impose order on the underclass, running away or feigning innocence as soon as things get dicey. Tied with Song Kang-ho’s characteristically cracked performance as the film’s most cartoonish element, Swinton doesn’t just steal Snowpiercer, she buys it, raises the rent, prices it out of the neighborhood and gentrifies the area. The film’s commitment to Mason’s morbid self-interest (and Swinton’s willingness to confront the same) is at the heart of why Bong Joon-ho’s work would be impossible to conceive of inside the studio system as it is exists today. Snowpiercer is rich with absurdity, but where most recent dystopian films have used levity as a salve, Bong uses it as a way of luring us deeper towards madness (quite literally, in one backwards dolly shot that completes an amazing visual gag involving raw fish). By the time Alison Pill shows up as an uzi-toting kindergarten teacher with a penchant for expositional propaganda songs, it’s clear that the film is unafraid to fall on its face, but also justifiably confident that it won’t.
Viewers familiar with The Host are already well aware that Bong is one of the modern masters of tonal juggling (in the world of contemporary pop film, perhaps only Edgar Wright nests genres inside one another with such skill and purpose), and so it’s no surprise that the film strikes a fluent balance between adventure and basic political discourse. Yet, perhaps Bong’s savviest move is that he doesn’t allow the film to become a debate, refusing to pretend that the guy from Not Another Teen Movie is capable of solving what generations of socio-economic scholars could not. Snowpiercer is merely a good movie peppered with great things, but there’s enduring value in how it only pits autonomic Marxism against (a capital-free form of) capitalism as a means of exploring how all political systems deteriorate into oppression when they prioritize survival over progress.
Quoth Mason when someone hurls a shoe at her head: “This is size 10 chaos.”