Tuesday, August 5, 2014

All aboard!: The insane delights of Snowpiercer

Bong Joon-ho making his English language debut feels like a long time coming.  His Korean films like Memories of Murder, The Host, and Mother were not only financial hits in his home country, but critically acclaimed internationally as well.  Across those films he's shown a wide mastery of tone and genre, possessing a talent that indicates he's poised to break out with a larger audience any day now.  Just last year, two of his Korean New Wave contemporaries, Kim Ji-woon and Park Chan-wook, made their English language debuts with The Last Stand and Stoker, respectively.  Now it's Joon-ho's turn with the VOD release of his sci-fi actioner, Snowpiercer.

In an effort to quell the onset of global warming, scientists drop an experimental cooling device that fails, freezing the Earth and killing most of its population.  The only survivors left exist on Snowpiercer, a high-tech train that circles the world and is built to withstand the Earth's varying climates.  Each of the train's cars are divided by economic strata, with the poor residing in grimy, cramped cars in the tail end of the train, and the rich in lavish cars closer to the engine in the front.  Tired of living in squalor, the tail end citizens -- helmed by leadership-averse Curtis (Chris Evans), sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell), and mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) -- decide to launch an attack to get to the front of the train and overthrow the wealthy who are in charge.  The divide between the rich and the poor is so pronounced that the people in the back of the train don't even know what any of the front-end citizens look like, save the elite minister (Tilda Swinton) who delivers orders on behalf of Wilford (Ed Harris), the train's creator and quasi-president.

The film is as unsubtle as that description makes it sound, which would usually be cause to write it off.  It's consciously, unabashedly unsubtle, but it basks in that heavy-handedness, dialing its subtext up to 11.  Snowpiercer is not meant to be a deeply probing film, it just wants to take the idea of class disparity and apply it to an interesting, contained setting.  And it certainly makes the most of that setting.  Joon-ho establishes an excellently realized world through the use of great set design, contrasting the sludgy cars in the back with the ornate ones in the front.  Always a highly visual director, he tells you so much about the train's ecosystem through quick visual flourishes, trusting you to pick up on the details without dialogue.

There's a very simple, clean structure to the story, which follows Curtis and his crew's progression from car to car.  It's kind of like levels in a video game, and like all video games, there are some objectives along the way.  In order to progress past the gates between the later cars, they must unlock security expert Namgoong (Joon-ho regular, Song Kang-ho) and his daughter (Go Ah-sung) from a morgue-like prison car.  During the quick succession between compartments, Snowpiercer flies with a forward momentum not unlike its titular train.  It's even able to get a bulk of its exposition out of the way when the main characters trek through the classroom car in the middle of a history lesson led by the train's teacher (a scene stealing Alison Pill).  Despite the long crawl through the length of the locomotive, the film fights off becoming repetitive by giving each of the checkpoints a different flavor.  One second there's an action scene, then in a typical Bong Joon-ho turn of tone, there's a scene of comical lunacy the next second.

Things threaten to grind to a screeching halt in the third act, which devolves into a level of monologuing that almost becomes excessive.  After such a propulsive beginning and middle, the fizzle is even more jarring.  Fortunately, the film turns around near the conclusion and delivers an explosive finale.  Snowpiercer is a messy, lumpy movie, but it's all in the service of something wild and ambitious, melding an array of tones and genres to create a thrilling experience.  We wouldn't want it any other way with Bong Joon-ho.

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