In a word, “Wow!” Bong Joon-ho’s (whose 2009 film, Mother, was a surprise hit in Asheville) first English language film, Snowpiercer, is near the very top of 2014’s “Best of” list — at least so far, and I can’t imagine it slipping out of the top five, no matter what surprises are in store as the next few months unfold. This incredible, nonstop outpouring of imagination and surprising twists is that rarest of things: The intelligent blockbuster with something on its mind. Or, as one character describes it, “a blockbuster production with a devilishly unpredictable plot.” Yes, the film offers its own assessment of what it is — and most aptly, since the proceedings, motivations and relationships are only slowly — and surprisingly — made clear. In fact, one relationship is made apparent in the film’s last three or four minutes. It is a film of such complexity that it required two viewings for me to feel even slightly comfortable writing about it. That second viewing proved that the film offers hint after hint about some aspects, but those hints are difficult to pick up on till you watch it again. A second look also increases the emotional impact of Snowpiercer, making it clear what an intensely moving — even shattering — experience it is.
Almost as remarkable as the film itself is the fact Bong Joon-ho went head-to-head with Harvey Weinstein, who wanted to cut the movie (what else is new?) and won. In a way, I can understand why Weinstein might have been reticent to release Bong’s cut. It is not an easy film. It will be too dark and violent for some and too politically charged for others. The entire film — save for about a minute — takes place on a fantastic and fantasticated train. The train is, so far as we know, carrying the last remnants of humanity in an endless loop around the world — and has been doing so for 18 years. The world itself has become an uninhabitable frozen wasteland, thanks to an attempt to stop global warming that went wildly wrong. What is left of the human race — and of any life at all — made it onto this train, which has become the world. And it is a world that works as an extension of our own world, with the wealthy few enjoying the benefits, while the rest of society are “kept in their place,” living on scraps and in squalor. No, this is not just my reading of Snowpiercer. The film is very upfront about the oligarchic nature of the society, with its few haves and the many have-nots. The latter are, in fact, called “takers.” (That, and the fact that this society exists on a super train, makes for a tempting reading of the film in terms of Ayn Rand. However, Bong is a Korean filmmaker, and the film is based on a French graphic novel, so this may be coincidental, since the Rand cult is almost entirely American in nature.)
The film’s focus is on a revolt against the ruling class that inhabits the front sections of the train (of course). And — despite the film’s status as political allegory — it’s a compelling, exciting and suspenseful ride. This is never a star vehicle, though both Chris Evans as the (partly by default) leader of the revolt and Song Kang-ho (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) as the drug-addled security expert are for all intents and purposes the leads. Plus, the film leans pretty heavily on Tilda Swinton’s nasty bureaucratic villain. (Asking why Ms. Swinton has been in three of the year’s best films would not be out of place.) Mostly, it’s an ensemble piece, and when that ensemble includes Ed Harris, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Ewan Bremner and Ko Ah-sung (The Host), it’s in good hands. What is remarkable is the way each performer manages to create the sense of a real character and how much most of the actors make us care about what happens to them — especially, starting at the 50-minute mark when we realize that high billing doesn’t guarantee anyone will make it to the front of the train. That also increases the film’s suspense to no end.
On every level, Snowpiercer is an amazing accomplishment. It is stylish and beautifully photographed from first to last. There’s clearly a touch of Terry Gilliam to the proceedings. For that matter, John Hurt’s name in the film is Gilliam. The film’s ability to turn around on itself in ways that are constantly surprising, yet ultimately make sense in the fabric of the story, is stunning, and things are rarely what they seem. Some may find Bong Joon-ho’s tonal shifts startling, but if you’re familiar with his earlier films, they’re consistent. It is, I suppose, possible to pick the film apart on a realism basis, but traditional realism is so clearly not what the movie is about that it seems a pointless game. It is, in any case, true to the world the film has created. It’s also a film that can be taken as nothing more than a dynamite sci-fi action film, if that suits you, though it’s really about much more. And its allegory may be in-your-face, but its arguments are startlingly complex. I really can’t recommend this one strongly enough. See this film! Rated R for violence, language and drug content.