Friday, February 20, 2015

Cap'n Howdy's Best of 2014: Snowpiercer

 You might say that I'm being overly lenient with my definition of "films released in 2014" to include Snowpiercer. It is true that Bong Joon-Ho had finished the film in time to be released in 2013, and that a protracted struggle within the Weinstein Company kept Snowpiercer out of theatres until the following year. At the heart of the debate, it seems that Harvey "Scissorhands" Weinstein wanted to cut thirty minutes out of the film in order to make it more "palatable" for audiences. To be honest, having seen Snowpiercer, I'm not sure what parts he thought cutting out of the film would improve it in any way. It doesn't need improving, and there's no amount of editing that could turn this cerebral, at times surreal film, into a crowd pleaser. The failure of the more crowd friendly Edge of Tomorrow is a testament that sometimes, the audiences just aren't going to come in. Eventually they came to an agreement that Snowpiercer could stay at its original length, so long as it only saw limited release. The good news is that word of mouth really made a difference, and like the even more bizarre Under the Skin, Snowpiercer was being talked about, even when it was hard to see it.

 Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Snowpiercer is deceptively simple in its premise: in an attempt to curtail global warming, climate scientists an experimental compound, which backfires, freezing the entire world. Humanity has been all but wiped out, save for those who managed to board a luxury train designed by Wilford Industries. It was designed to run almost perpetually, and it's the only thing left that can traverse the frozen wasteland. For 17 years, the train has been going, never stopping. The social strata that makes up the remainder of humanity correlates with the sections of the train: the very poor, destitute, who could not pay for their way aboard the Snowpiercer are in the back, and the rich live near the front, in opulence, near the reclusive Wilford, who conducts the train. The back section is tired of the inequity, and Curtis (Chris Evans) finds himself leading a push from to the front - violently, if necessary.

 Embedded into the protein bars, someone has been sending Curtis messages, and with the advice of the former conductor, Gilliam (John Hurt), he thinks that now might be the time. Their only contact from the front of the train comes through Mason (Tilda Swinton), an officious, pompous bureaucrat who loves nothing so much as to remind them of their place. If they can capture her, and get past security with the help of Namgoong (Song Kang Ho), who designed the doors but also has a debilitating addiction to the train fuel's byproduct, there's a chance to confront Wilford* and stop the train. Or better conditions. Or, it depends on who gets there first. One of the interesting things is that despite the fact that Snowpiercer is a metaphor for class struggle and revolution, it's also fairly evident that this doesn't mean everyone has the same agenda. What Curtis wants is very different from what Namgoong wants, and how Gilliam and Wilford respond are fascinating unto themselves.

 Some people, like Tanya (Octavia Spencer) or Andrew (an unrecognizable Ewen Bremner) want their children back. Every now and then Mason takes them up to the front, for reasons no one in the back know, and they never return. Others, like Edgar (Jamie Bell), who were born on the train, want a sense of justice, of agency. They've never known anything but misery, undernourishment, and subjugation. We learn later in the film what life was like in the early days, moments that give considerable weight to character moments at the beginning of the film. Before that, as Curtis and company move to the front of the train, things get weird.

 This, perhaps, is what Weinstein thought he could "help" Snowpiercer with: each section of the train is distinct from the one that came before it, often in truly unusual ways. There's no way to adequately describe the surreal classroom sequence featuring Allison Pill (The Newsroom) as a Wilford Propagandist Teacher. It's not the last time the film is willing to get truly odd, which is saying something about Snowpiercer. Because the structure of the revolution is back-to-front, we often get information (particularly symbolism, like dipping axes in fish guts) before its significance is addressed. What seems like an outré moment becomes, not long after, significant in the larger structure of the world. I still love the point where a large contingent of security guards, led by Mason and Franco the Elder (Vlad Ivanov) and Franco the Younger (Adnan Haskovic) meet our heroes in a long car to battle. It abruptly comes to a halt when the train crosses a long bridge, which marks the passage of another year. The brief celebration (on both sides) and cheers of "Happy New Year" come to an end when Namgoong's assistant / translator, Yona (Ah-Sung Ko) informs Curtis that they're about to enter a "really long tunnel," and only the guards have night vision goggles. It's these unusual touches, which often collide with the brutal, post-apocalyptic reality, that give the film its distinctiveness. Trimming them out in order to "improve" the run time would have robbed Snowpiercer of many of its best moments.

 Without spoiling too much, I'd like to return to the moral ambiguity of the film by briefly discussing the inevitable conclusion when Curtis reaches Wilford (I won't say who does or doesn't make it along the way, but Bong Joon-Ho doesn't hesitate to thin both sides of the herd). There's a customary "talk with the Devil" scene, where our hero faces temptation, but this time, you have to hand it to Wilford. The case he makes is, to be honest, a fair one: what did Curtis really expect to do when he made it to the engine? Is he really going to risk wiping out all of humanity by stopping the train? It was established earlier in the film - in a horrific way - just how long a person can last exposed to the outside world. Wilford has been responsible for some horrible, unforgivable decisions, and it's during his speech that many of the seemingly "weird" moments begin to make much more sense. We've been introduced to everything that's happening in the movie well before we realized it, and the case that Wilford makes, however ghoulish, is pragmatic. From his perspective, as the steward of all of humanity, what else can he do?

 I'm not necessarily justifying either side here - before meeting Wilford, Curtis explains exactly why he's been so hesitant to lead, and what happened in the first few years, and it's not necessarily the sort of story you tell proudly. Evan's face during the monologue is riveting, and the revelations are every bit as disturbing as the discovery of what the protein bars are made of. It's the first of many revelations that contextualize dialogue you'd largely considered to be standard "I'm not fit to lead" conversations earlier in Snowpiercer. In many ways, it's a far more complicated movie than its premise would suggest, and the fact that neither side is necessarily "right" in what they want to do and how they want to do it give more heft to the ending.

 Across the board, performances are high level. Anyone who thinks that Chris Evans can only be stoic and "goody two shoes" need only spend two hours with him as Curtis to wipe that notion away. Swinton and Pill border the closest to "cartoonish" in the film, with Mason resembling a caricature of Margaret Thatcher (by design) and the Teacher being part of what is Snowpiercer's oddest moment. Both serve a purpose in the film, as does Ivanov's largely silent Franco the Elder, who doggedly pursues the rebels up the train. Special kudos to Kang-ho Song (Thirst) and Ah-sung Ko (The Host), who are more than what they seem and whose impact on the story is significant. If there's a missed note in the film, it might be from Emma Levie as Claude, Wilford's assistant, who is underdeveloped to the point of being superfluous, even late in the film. Otherwise, most of the ensemble cast is more than capable of following the story in whatever direction it takes.

 To be frank, I'm happy that we got to see Snowpiercer in its original form. There was always a chance of it lingering on the shelf in obscurity, because of debates surrounding its "palatability" with mainstream audiences. I'm not sure that the masses would or could embrace a film as nihilistic as Snowpiercer is willing to be, but now it's out there for the world to decide. It was a great year for science fiction, and Snowpiercer is near the top as far as the Cap'n is concerned.

 *I'm deliberately leaving out who plays Wilford, because it's more fun to find out, although you're likely to see the name of the actor before you watch the movie. Just not here.

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