Friday, February 13, 2015

It Came From The Video Store: Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer was written by Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson, and directed by Bong Joon-ho.

Bong previously directed The Host (the one about the giant mutant fish monster, not the horrible Stephanie Meyer thing). Snowpiercer is his first English language film, which probably explains it's odd tone.

It's based on a French graphic novel that I've never heard of, which seems to happen a lot these days. In an interview Bong stated that he read the entire novel while standing in a bookstore and was so impressed he just had to turn it into a film. In fact he loved the material so much that he "had to come up with a completely new story and new characters in order to create a new, dynamic Snowpiercer that was packed with cinematic exhilaration." Ah, so he loved it so much he had to overhaul it entirely. Got it.

I heard about the film months before its eventual release, and was very much looking forward to seeing it. I was hoping for an introspective, intelligent sci-fi film, one that required the audience to think and didn't end with everything exploding. Instead what we got was a bizarre exercise in heavy-handed satire and surrealism that borders on farce. And of course everything blows up at the end.

Snowpiercer's concept of a socially stratified train is obviously meant as a metaphor for our own society. It's a microcosm of the world! The haves versus the have-nots! The 1% and all that. Unfortunately it's all a little too simplistic and heavy handed. It's a lot like one of Star Trek's infamous "message" episodes. You know, the kind where they introduce aliens whose bodies are black on one side and white on the other to tell us that racism is a bad thing.

The film also gives new meaning to the word "contrived." You've really got to bend over backwards (and then some) to accept the unlikely premise. 

The Weinstein Company acquired the American distribution rights for the film, which generated quite a bit of controversy. Owner Harvey Weinstein didn't think Americans would understand the film and wanted to cut it by twenty minutes and add opening and closing monologues to explain the plot. 

Director Bong refused to alter the film, and when outraged film fans got wind of the scandal, they started a petition demanding it be screened uncut. This greatly incensed Weinstein, who agreed to release the uncut version of the film— but only in a scant eight theaters in June of 2014. That'll show 'em, Harvey! Spite that old face!


The Plot:
In the unimaginably far off year of 2014, scientists attempt to counter the effects of global warming by releasing a chemical into the upper atmosphere that will cool things down. Unfortunately the process backfires, plunging Earth into a new Ice Age and wiping out nearly all life. It's now impossible for humans to survive outside, and the only survivors are the passengers of the Snowpiercer, a high tech train powered by a perpetual motion engine, invented by an eccentric billionaire named Wilford. 

The Snowpiercer travels on a specially built, globe-spanning track, making one complete circuit every year. A class system evolves on the train, with— you guessed it— the wealthy and elite inhabiting the posh front cars, while the rabble is relegated to the back. The elite enjoy a life of luxury and plenty, while the lower class predictably lives in squalor and survives on rationed nutrient blocks.

In 2031 (the year the story takes place), tension is running high in the tail section. Gilliam (played by John Hurt, giving new meaning to the word grizzled), the leader of the Tailers and co-inventor of the Snowpiercer, urges Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) to lead a revolt and storm the front of the train and take it over. Just then guards from the front arrive to harvest children for some unknown purpose. They take Timmy, the son of a woman named Tanya (Octavia Spencer). This is the last straw for the Tailers, and they begin their revolt.

The Tailer rebels make their way through several train cars to the prison section. There they find Namgoong Minsu, the man who designed Snowpiercer's security system and can help them get to the front of the train. Well that was certainly convenient! Namgoong and his teen daughter Yona are addicted to Kronole, a substance made from train engine byproducts that's both a drug and an explosive (!). The rebels promise the two an unlimited supply of Kronole for their help.

The rebels capture Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) who's Wilford's right hand man, er, woman, and use her as a hostage to move toward the front. Everything goes smoothly until they reach a car filled with armed men. In the resulting melee, Gilliam is killed, along with Curtis' second in command Edgar (Jamie Bell). Curtis then kills Mason in retaliation.

During a lull in the battles (and the plot), Namgoong tells Curtis that every year the train passes a crashed plane buried in the snow, and each year the plane has become a bit more visible. He believes Earth is starting to warm up again, and survival outside is now possible.

Curtis' decimated band of rebels eventually reaches the engine room of the train, where they meet the mysterious and reclusive Wilford (Ed Harris). Wilford explains that he and Gilliam have been secretly working together for years, and periodically orchestrate rebellions as a means of population control onboard the train. Things got a little out of control this time though, and Wilford lost too many from his side, which is why he ordered Gilliam to be killed. Wilford feels he's becoming too old for this kind of thing, and wants Curtis to take his place as the train's leader. Curtis refuses.

Yona pulls up a floor panel in the engine room and discovers Timmy inside. Apparently Wilford is using Tailer child labor to replace the train's aging and failing components. Curtis jams his arm into the whirling gears to stop them long enough for Timmy to escape. Yona detonates her supply of Kronole to destroy the engine. The explosion causes an avalanche, which derails the train and destroys all of the cars. Yona and Timmy emerge from the wreckage, the only survivors and the last of the human race. Outside for the first time in their lives, they survey the vast snowy wilderness. Yona spots a polar bear in the distance, indicating that life is returning to the world and survival is possible (if highly unlikely).

• As regular readers of my blog already know, one of my pet peeves is when a "futuristic" movie full of advanced technology or radical societal changes takes place too close to the present day. Nowhere is that problem more prevalent than here. 

The movie begins in 2014 for poop's sake, when mankind accidentally causes a new ice age. The only survivors are the passengers of the Snowpiercer, which means it had to have been built prior to the disaster. 

The Snowpiercer is a super advanced train powered by a perpetual motion engine (which is physically impossible), traveling around the globe on a mammoth, specially constructed circular track. That means they probably started building the track back in, oh, I don't know, 1990 maybe? Earlier? Think about how much engineering would be involved in building a track that circles the planet and crosses oceans. It'd take decades and cost billions. Maybe more. 

Obviously we have nothing remotely close to this technology now. So why set it so close to the present? Why not set it in 2114?

The only way this story can work is if it's set in some parallel world, which automatically distances it from the audience, making it harder to care about what's happening.

• Director Bong Joon-ho was reluctant to hire Chris Evans to play Curtis, due to his imposing Captain America physique. Curtis is supposed to be starving after all, along with the rest of the tail passengers. Bong eventually relented and they dressed Evans in loose-fitting clothing to help hide his build.

Evans does a great job in the film. There was a time when I thought he was little more than a male model, but he's surprised me lately and is actually a pretty good actor.

• Speaking of starving, for someone whose food has been rationed every day for 18 years, Tanya looks very... full bodied.

• Tilda Swinton plays Minister Mason, Wilford's second in command. Many fans of the film were miffed that Swinton wasn't nominated for Best Actress for her role as Mason. 

Personally I don't blame the Academy. Her bizarre performance was much too cartoonish to take seriously. She gives new meaning to the phrase "over the top." Swinton claims she played Mason "as a mix of Margaret Thatcher, Gaddafi and Hitler," but it seemed more like Jane Hathaway filtered through Monty Python to me.

• Sing Kang-ho (who plays Namgoong) and Go Ah-sung (who plays Yona) played father and daughter in Bong's previous film The Host.

• Curtis' second in command Edgar (played by Jamie Bell) is a train baby, meaning he was born inside the Snowpiercer and has never stepped foot outside. Yet he speaks with a very prominent Irish accent! So how'd he develop such a specific vocal trait in the train's homogeneous culture?

I suppose you could say he was raised by an Irish man or woman after his mother was killed and picked up the accent from them. I suppose you could say that, but...

• Curtis suspects the guards ran out of bullets long ago, and are threatening the Tailers with empty weapons. Feeling he has nothing to lose, he tests his theory by openly defying a guard who's pointing a gun at him. Luckily for Curtis, he's proved right— the guns have been empty for years.

Later on Wilford orders the guards to mow down 74% of the tail passengers, as a means of population control. So I guess they had bullets after all? Were they saving the bullets specifically for herd-thinning? And how does one estimate 74% while strafing a crowd of humans?

• Once a day guards distribute nasty-looking jellied nutrient blocks to the Tailers. Before the invention of these blocks, the tail passengers (including Curtis) actually turned to cannibalism to survive. 

During the revolt the Tailers enter the car where the nutrient blocks are manufactured, and discover they're made out of scuttling roaches. Curtis and the others are horrified down to their very cores and can barely keep from swooning at this appalling sight (despite the fact that millions of people consume insects on a regular basis).

So, let's see if I've got this straight: Eating human babies— eh, no big deal. Eating roach bars— the most disgusting, stomach-emptying thought that's possible. Got it.

• There's a potentially fatal plot hole in the film. When the Tailers start their revolt, Wilford, the leader of the Snowpiercer, apparently forgets they're on a train. All he had to do is simply uncouple the last car and BAM! No more Tailers and no more rebellion. Even better, he could have simply turned off the heat for a couple of hours and frozen the Tailers to death.

At the end of the film we find out there's a reason why Wilford doesn't do this, but it's a pretty weak explanation and it comes a bit late.

• The Snowpiercer runs on a perpetual motion engine, so it never needs fuel and is supposedly maintenance-free (more on that in a bit). What about the tracks? Don't they ever get damaged?

• The big reveal at the end of the film is that (Spoiler Alert!) Wilford and Gilliam have been secretly working together all along, and regularly stage rebellions in order to keep the population of the train down.

But why? Why start up the whole class struggle all over again? There's only a handful of people left on Earth. Wouldn't this have been the perfect opportunity to start up a new, more utopian society? Couldn't everyone be equals and enjoy the luxuries of the train as long as they practiced normal population control? Starting up a class war and staging periodic violent rebellions to thin the herd seems like overkill to me.

Many sociologists believe society needs the lower class to survive— someone's got to pick up all the trash after all. But the tail passengers didn't actually do anything. They don't sweep up, produce goods or unclog toilets, they just sit around being oppressed. Their only apparent function is to rebel now and then, to keep the population down.

• All through the film we hear tales of Wilford's amazing life and talents, making us believe he's a Big Deal. So what do we see when the Tailers finally reach the front of the train? Is Wilford a giant, floating head, ala The Wizard Of Oz? An enormous sentient computer? Nope, he's just Ed Harris in a silk bathrobe. 

I think director Bong was playing with our expectations here, but it came off as very anticlimactic. 

• Bong has a very weak grasp of how amputation works, and how grievous an injury the loss of a limb is.

In the early days of the Snowpiercer, the starving Tailers actually turned to cannibalism to survive. Even Curtis wasn't immune, as he was ready to eat the then infant Edgar. Gilliam intervened by cutting off his own arm (!) and offering it to Curtis as food. Apparently this was no big deal, as he didn't go into shock or bleed to death afterward. In fact after he does this, dozens of other Tailers begin eating their own limbs as well, with no apparent ill effect.

At the end of the film, Curtis discovers that Timmy is stuffed under machinery in the floor and is manually helping the engine work. Curtis sacrifices his arm by jamming it into the gears, which allows Timmy to crawl out without getting sliced to pieces. The gears slice off Curtis' forearm, but he seems perfectly fine afterward. He doesn't bleed out, as his futuristic arteries apparently seal themselves off.

Needless to say, this is not how limb loss works.

By the way, how'd Timmy get down into that crawlspace to begin with? The perpetual motion engine never stops. Did someone else have to jam their arm into the gears long enough for Timmy to crawl in?

• After the train is destroyed, Yona and Timmy emerge from the wreckage, the last two survivors of humanity. They look up at a distant mountain and see a polar bear eying them. They then hold hands as they trudge off into this brave new frozen world.

And then they're both immediately consumed by the bear. Or they freeze to death. Your choice.

I'm having trouble deciding if this is supposed to be a hopeful or depressing ending. Yes, Namgoong said that it appears that the world is finally starting to warm up again, so it's possible they'll be able to survive outside for more than a few minutes. But Yona and Timmy are both train babies and have never been outside in their lives. They'll have zero survival skills. Plus it appears they're in a mountainous area, with no vegetation whatsoever. I give them both a week, tops.

Even if they somehow manage to survive, Timmy's six years old. It's gonna be a while before he can, um, contribute to the repopulation process.

By the way, check out Timmy's perfect kid-sized parka. Where the hell did that come from?

Snowpiercer could have been a thoughtful, hard-scifi masterpiece, but instead it's a contrived, heavy handed allegory that borders on satire. That said, it did stick with me for a while, which is more than I can say for most films these days. I give it a B-.

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