Snowpiercer: The Mother of Summer 2014 Blockbusters
Starring Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Ed Harris, Octavia Spencer
By Barbara Goslawski
Korean cinema’s master manipulator Bong Joon-Ho is at it again in his latest film, Snowpiercer. Bong has long displayed an unerring talent for high calibre composites – of moods, styles and stories – a director who could intermingle the macabre with the bitingly satirical, action with humour, always adding touches of melodrama, suspense and noir just for accent – invariably leaving us with head-spinning imagery and a healthy flurry of thoughts, ideas and feelings.
Snowpiercer, his English-language debut, is no exception. This sci-fi action-charged blockbuster is also a disturbing meditation on human fault lines. Bong may not be the most obvious choice to summer fans of the big action-packed moviesbut he certainly has a number of tricks up his sleeve: his visual mix of the eerie with the transcendent is second only to his carefully timed, glorious explosions. Breathtaking in its scope, Snowpiercer will satisfy the thrill-seekers and thinkers alike.
In the not-so-distant future, an experiment to mitigate global warming goes horribly wrong, plunging the world into a new Ice Age instead. Survivors pile onto a train, benevolently supplied by a mysterious benefactor. They then spend seventeen years hurtling through frozen lifeless landscapes across the world, across the same tracks, over and over again incyclical fashion. The inhabitants seem trapped in a predetermined destiny, a combination of fascist nightmare and morbid circus fair.
The real story begins in the tail section, the slums so to speak, where people live in abject conditions and are subject to torture if they exhibit even the slightest inclination towards overstepping their constraining, tyrannical, social restrictions. Our hero, Curtis (Chris Evans), finally steps up to lead what shapes up to be a rag tag, but increasingly angry and defiant, mob (which includes Octavia Spencer in an inspired performance). Little do they know that the laws of nature are in play in the events on the train, and in its oversimplified predetermined trajectory.
Not surprisingly the rebels must literally and figuratively knock through walls and gates (and get past Tilda Swinton’s manically determined and deluded character) to accomplish their task, to confront the man in charge (Ed Harris) in their attempt to progress to the top, or the front of the train. They are fighting for their lives and have hopes of establishing a more just society by overtaking the evil forces that have overpowered them. This seemingly straightforward narrative is nevertheless full of twists and turns. Snowpiercer grotesquely and ironically hints at the devolution of humanity as opposed to an evolution or even revolution. There are unnerving surprises while the bitter irony hangs in the air above the action: are they really moving forward?
The overarching absurdist yet deeply alarming universe which Bong creates harkens back not just to his earlier filmsbut to literary classics such as Animal Farm, and especially to major historical world missteps that still resonate to this day (such as the supposed communist ideals underpinning so many dictatorships, and the ever-present wars where lives have proven expendable). Political satire is the lifeblood of Bong’s work, couched as it is in a vigorous eccentricity and an eye for the remarkable. In Snowpiercer, history is referenced as a mere repetition, a disturbing game that unnervingly races across the same track. It is also a fed by a twisted force that is inescapable and central to human existence: an actual law of nature which is intolerable when applied to human behaviour. It’s an ugly truth but a truth nonetheless.
As we learned in Bong’s previous triumphs, The Host and Mother (Madeo), it is not the monster without that must be feared but that evil within that must be guarded. Whether it is an infection that permeates a being (The Host) or, more realistically, a depravity that lives within, Bong has an impeccable instinct when rendering it visually. It is so undeniably shocking, especially in Snowpiercer, what happens to an individual pushed beyond his/her limits. One need only to remember what that darling mother in Mother (Madeo) was driven to do when she perceived an unbearable threat.
The ending is both unexpected and shockingly suitable in this context. What begins as a fight for all that is fair becomes a dystopian construct carefully manufactured to maintain what is revealed as an imaginary notion of the common good. Not so much a bizarre spectacle in the collective kapow of films this summer, Snowpiercer’s originality will nevertheless leave you satisfyingly breathless. And its truth will continue to haunt.
Opens in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary on July 18, 2014