Tuesday, July 1, 2014
Dir. Bong Joon-Ho
4.5 out of 5
How we love our machines. The top billing of Bong Joon-Ho's first English-language film, Snowpiercer, arguably belongs not to any of its international movie stars, but to the titular train, a self-sustaining pleasure carriage that's now an ark for the last remnants of humanity after a misguided scientific solution to global warming wound up freezing the entire planet. For 18 years the ark has rumbled across the globe while its passengers became entrenched in a strict caste system. In front are the elites in well-appointed cabins with plenty of comforts and amenities, while the poor occupy the rear of the train, a grimy and cramped powderkeg of discontent. One of those miserable souls, the idealistic Curtis (Chris Evans), is determined to succeed where others have failed. He plans and executes a revolt designed to overthrow the train's shadowy designer and chief engineer - known only as "Wilford" - contending not only with security forces, deadly hitmen, and a drugged-out accomplice (Song Kang-ho), but also the equally pernicious forces of social inertia and the soporific comfort of the status quo.
Movies can be machines too, especially in the summer, and Snowpiecer purrs better than any blockbuster Hollywood is likely to release this season. That's because Bong clearly understands the path to success in genre cinema is not necessarily to be original, but to always be distinctive. Based on a French graphic novel first published in the early 1980s, Snowpiercer is Bong's vision through and through. There's environmental commentary with a kick-ass action chaser, a la his Korean monster movie The Host. There's also an emphasis on familial bonds that propel personal sacrifice (see: Bong's haunting 2009 thriller Mother), whether it's the young turk Edgar (Jamie Bell) looking up to Curtis as a father figure or protective mother Tanya (Octavia Spencer) risking her life to find out why Wilford's agents plucked her five-year-old son from her arms with no explanation. There's some brand new shit I can barely describe, like Tilda Swinton playing a cross between Margaret Thatcher, Eleanor Roosevelt, and an officious DMV employee. And throughout it all, there's a general aplomb in the storytelling. For example, it's not enough for Bong to deliver some mid-film exposition through a lessson for eager front-section elementary schoolers, so he frames it as a gonzo sequence that feels like a paramilitary re-education camp and ends it with a gunfight initiated by a pregnant woman.
That's probably the fifth or sixth most unexpected thing that happens in the movie. Because beyond its formal trickery and thin character archetypes, Snowpiercer is driven by its need to yank the rug out from under the audience as many times as possible. Bong never really leaves his destination in doubt. It's just that he takes a more circuitous - and satisfying - route to get there. In this way the film reminds me of last year's Stoker, another English-language debut from a successful Korean director that outstrips its closest American contemporaries in terms of mood and aesthetic. Snowpiercer is even better - weirder and riskier, yet still acknowledging the audience's expectations of a good time and a (reasonably) happy ending. It's everything you could want from a summer movie...and a few things you probably didn't anticipate. Going off the rails has never felt so exhilarating.