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Josh Reviews Snowpiercer

August 29th, 2014
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An attempt to reverse global warming has gone catastrophically wrong, resulting in frigid temperatures covering the entire planet and wiping out almost all life on Earth.  The few survivors of humanity exist inside Snowpiercer, an enormous train on a track that circles the globe once each year.  The product of a wealthy inventor, Snowpiercer is a fully self-contained, self-supporting ecosystem.  But within the train, a strict class system has developed, with the wealthy in the front cars living a life of luxury, while the impoverished are crammed in together in the tail section, living in gulag-like conditions.  Curtis (Chris Evans), assisted by the wizened old man Gilliam (William Hurt), decides to start a revolution, breaking out of the tail section and leading his followers through one train-car after another, on their way to the front and the revered, perpetual-motion engine.

Any time I get to see an original work of science fiction I am happy, and the South Korean film Snowpiercer (adapted from the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige) sure is original.  The film reminds me of the wacko-crazy extraordinary visual sensibility of Terry Gilliam.  (is it a coincidence that William Hurt’s character is named Gilliam?  I doubt it.)  The movie is gorgeous, a feast for the eyes, with extraordinary work done by the sets and costume departments.  Each train-car is its own unique, fully-contained world.  Each time Curtis and his fellows enter a new car, so are we the audience drawn into a wonderful new, fully-imagined reality.  It is extraordinary.  (All the more-so considering this was far from a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster.)

I am not sure how much of Snowpiercer is meant to be taken literally.  There are many questions I could ask about the logistics of the reality of this sci-fi world within the train.  But I don’t think we’re meant to ask those questions, and the film is strong enough that I never got bogged down in asking myself those questions.  There is extraordinary power in the simple metaphor of the train’s linear class system.  Like the best sci-fi, Snowpiercer dazzles at creating a world outside of our own, while, at the same time, having so much to say about our present-day reality.

The film also reminded me of Apocalypse Now, as with each train-car Curtis’ group passes through, it’s as if they are on their own Heart of Darkness journey down the river into the unknown.  Just like Willard (Martin Sheen’s character in Apocalypse Now), Curtis finds at the end f his journey a figure of complex, ambiguous morality.  And just like for Willard, it is left to Curtis to make the final moral judgment as to whether this individual can be permitted to remain alive.

Chris Evans is dynamite as Curtis, the reluctant revolutionary leader.  It’s nice to see the talented Mr. Evans get a role that stretches his muscles beyond Captain America.  (He’s great as Cap, don’t get me wrong!  But I wouldn’t want to see Mr. Evans pigeonholed in that role and nothing more.)  There are several other famous American actors who are great in the film, as well as a number of equally great unknown-to-me South Korean actors.  Tilda Swinton is a show-stopper as Mason, the wealthy, cruel woman responsible for keeping the tail-section rabble in-line.  (Her performance is ably assisted by some great make-up and costuming.)  The great John Hurt gives good grizzle as Gilliam, the wizened, elderly mentor to Curtis.  Jamie Bell is wonderful as Curtis’ eager young side-kick, and Octavia Spencer is also great as a poor mother desperately searching for her son who was taken from her by the front-of-the-train residents.  Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung are wonderful as the drug-addicted pair who help Curtis open the doors between each train-car.  Alison Pill pops up memorably as the deluded school-teacher who Curtis encounters in the middle of the train.  And I won’t tell you what famous actor appears at the end of the film in the Marlon Brando role, but suffice to say it’s a wonderful bit of casting and that actor does not disappoint.

I have some issues with the film’s ending.  Not enough to derail my enjoyment of the film, but I while I was able to go with the metaphor of the story throughout the film, I would have appreciated a little more clarity to the ending.  BEWARE SPOILERS HERE.  I would have loved to have gotten clarity as to Curtiss’ fate, as well as the fate of all of the train’s many other residents.  If really only a young girl and a boy survived, is that supposed to be a hopeful, happy ending?  I get the Adam and Eve metaphor, but I am troubled by the certainty that those two, alone in the frozen wilderness, could not possibly survive, let alone actually repopulate the species.  This left me confused as to the film’s intentions with its ending.  This muddled, to me, what had been the potent social commentary of the film up to that point.

Bravo to director Bong Joon-ho for creating this wonderfully unique piece of science fiction.  It is gloriously weird and bizarre, and I loved it.

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