SNOWPIERCER (2013, directed by Boon Joon-ho, 126 minutes, South Korea)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Writing about current film, I worry I spend too much time bemoaning the state of the Hollywood blockbuster, a sizable section of cinema I sometimes feel I should abandon altogether. What does summer boredom look like? Every other Joe is a super hero, every trailer reveals rebooted nostalgia and the sight of city skylines crumbling to the ground has become as old hat as cowboys dueling on a dusty Main Street. But it is hard to let the special-effects epic go. I was a budding cinema-lover in the genre’s rise, marveling at cinematic game-changers like Jaws, Star Wars, Alien, Blade Runner, Ghostbusters, and The Matrix. While the fresh vision of these now-classic blockbusters is in short supply in Hollywood, most films carry DNA from a few of these hits in their design. Yet ultimately our top-grossers look like each other, with the blockbuster formula becoming further and further refined until the product unimaginatively resembles a blender-ized goo of every hit that came before..
It takes a film of the elevated quality of Snowpiercer to convince me that my neurons aren’t too traumatized to thrill at an epic battle played out on screen. Boon Joon-ho’s film pins the needle in excitement without eschewing the delights of sharp writing and honest-to-goodness ideas. The only drag is that locally this large-scale audience-pleaser is shoe-horned into the most unwelcoming small screen in Philly, the long and narrow Roxy Theater, recently spruced up by the folks at the Philadelphia Film Festival. I worry that faced with this option folks might settle for On-Demand viewing, a scale unworthy of such a visceral tale.
Snowpiercer tells a story of a post-apocalyptic population herded aboard a train after a geo-engineering cure for climate change throws the planet into a new ice age. While humans have perished outside, survivors on-board are easily separated into class, with the “haves” living in modern luxury in the front cars while the “have-nots” are crowded into the back, drinking the upper class’ bilge water and surviving on a black gel composed of bug puree. John Hurt is Gilliam, the amputee who is the soul of the revolution but Curtis (Chris Evans, Capt. America for goodness sakes) is the earnest spark plug who makes it happen. Curtis and his dirty-faced soldiers begin a battle that will head up the train, and hopefully take control of the engine. In a time when so many action films seem to get bogged down in random complications seemingly designed to string their action scenes together, Snowpiercer stands out for having a visually concise goal for its players: swim upstream and take power. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t surprises in store.
Director Boon Joon-ho promised such a breakthrough with his breakout hit The Host, which almost magically introduced a believable reality to the giant monster genre. With Snowpiercer he infuses the action hero with an unusually profound sense of purpose, so disturbing is the Dickensian poverty to be found at the end of the train. Making that poverty yet more cruel is the liaison from the privileged class, Tilda Swinton as the prim and prissy Mason. Mason delivers her class homilies with a lisping sneer and a Thatcher-esque aplomb, telling the unwashed workers that they are the shoes of humanity and they are foolish to think that they belong anywhere but the bottom. As our revolutionaries travel up the train the colors brighten but the life of the upper crust isn’t more refined. They are instead awash in propaganda and decadence. In our era, so heavily marked by record wealth disparity, the taboo issue of class has rarely been so starkly illustrated in a film designed to entertain. Could this razor-sharp commentary have contributed to the film arriving half-buried with little promotion, despite rave reviews?
Snowpiercer does not idealize revolution, as the engine gets closer the complications build. Curtis may be leading the workers to gain control, but seizing power could just be the beginning of their problems. Looking to transcend the whole crisis is the outlaw Namgoong Minsoo (Kaang-ho Song of The Host and Thirst), a kind of mystical Han Solo character whose prominence quietly builds until the train comes crashing to its destination. Today’s blockbusters hint at such themes but rarely commit themselves with such resonance and intelligence. That Snowpiercer can ponder the ideas of class and revolution and still deliver inventive action each step along the way makes the film itself seem like a rebellion against the stale Hollywood template, a rebellion one can not help but root for.