Is SNOWPIERCER the best movie you’ve never heard of? Possibly so. But really do we have to label things that way? I don’t feel the need to categorize the film in any way – and maybe, because it is such a mix of genres, so layered and so unusual that it just cannot be fairly categorized. Someone said that SNOWPIERCER is the “best movie of 2014 thus far.” That’s a very big statement. I do not feel it is ‘the best,’ nor do I feel qualified to issue that title (except for the fact that A MOST WANTED MAN is the best film of 2014 so far…). However, it is without question worth seeing for many reasons. Chief among them is that, like Russian nesting dolls, SNOWPIERCER presents new tableaus, layers, allegories, and psychological horrors with each opened door. There are numerous compartments and not all of them are tangible. It is a dark hybrid – a little bit martial arts film, a little bit Terry Gilliam, and a little bit Tim Burton.
Claustrophobia, surrealism and post modern spiritual constructs crammed into a speeding metal tube. In an effort to counteract uncontrollable global warming, a chemical is released into earth’s atmosphere with the belief that it will halt the rapid warming and stabilize temperatures. It does in fact cool things down but to an ice-age chilliness. The only remaining humans on earth, many having paid for the privilege but some not, are all aboard a high speed train, The Snowpiercer, which circumnavigates the globe. The train never stops and inside its many cars are a living microcosm of the earth we once knew complete with all its riches, atrocities, races, rage and human failings. We join the train in its 17th year spanning the globe and begin the battle forward from the caboose to the ultimate goal: The Sacred Engine. Like a metaphor they use in the film itself, the back of the train where the freeloaders reside is the ass of the train. It is bleak, dirty, devoid of natural light and filled with a seething population of every race and age. There are children born on the train who have never been outside in the natural world. Residents reminisce about the taste of steak as they choke down revolting gelatinous brown ‘protein blocks.’ To the ultra-rich decadent privileged ruling class of the front cars, they are the refuse, the parasites of what is left of the human race. It is a caste system, and one which is strictly enforced with fear and torture.
The use of color in SNOWPIERCER is magnificent. Our first glimpse of a passenger from the front cars, clad in yellow against the ubiquitous grey of the rear cars, seems so bright it’s like looking at the sun. And it makes you gasp. The film has layers upon layers of foreshadowing and figuration. What was once outside is now so inside – all the elements contained within a train and shape shifting constantly – ice becomes water, a pregnant woman followed by a wheelbarrow of eggs, darkness into blinding light, a single remaining match becomes an olympic torch carried by an innocent. The momentum of the train is echoed in the momentum of the rebellion pushing ever forward through each new circle of hell. The ruling class, and the divine creator of the train Wilford, have recreated the garden of eden. Fruits and vegetables, sea creatures, a clean orderly slaughterhouse with carcasses hung like sculpture. It is a “closed ecological system” in which balance must be closely maintained. The engine is the godhead around which the remainder of humanity organizes itself and bows to. The film is dense with multiple analogies, allegories and symbolism, while it asks an unanswerable historic question: What is the value of one individual life in the quest for the good of the whole?
Chris Evans plays the Curtis, old enough to remember what life was like on the ground, but young and vital enough to stir a revolt among the end car passengers. His ever deferent companion Edgar is played by Jamie Bell. The ruling elder wise man Gilliam is an appropriately disheveled John Hurt. Crippled by the early event on the train and the horrifying medieval disciplinary punishments by the enforcers of the hierarchy, Gilliam is down one leg and an arm. Chris Evans is a slightly more sympathetic hero than his Captain America superhero and yet…I have trouble getting behind him. Perhaps in the small pool of humans left on earth he is still too beautiful, too epically noble, too…lucky. In his character’s major monologue, like a confession to a priest, he cannot bring forth the agonizing pain that the subject matter so clearly deserves and embodies. He doesn’t have the depth or the emotional range to move us where we finally need to be moved after such a long and arduous journey. The film’s conclusion is surprising and intelligent. It calls into question fundamental assumptions both our characters and we the viewers have taken for granted from the outset. Are we really ever in control of our destiny? Do we own the power to determine our path? SNOWPIERCER portends that perhaps we only believe that we have dominion over our own lives and, in reality, we are all just organisms in a closely controlled “closed ecological system.” It bears mentioning that this is South Korean Director Joon-ho Bong’s first English Language film, and was co-written with Kelly Masterson a playwright as well as the screenwriter of BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD. The essence of SNOWPIERCER is based upon a French graphic novel published in 1982 called Le Transperceneige. All of these seemingly disparate elements and ingredients serve only to make the film more complex and fascinating. It is a film in which undoubtedly you will uncover new details, hidden themes and symbols with each viewing. That is a sign of a good film. A film which can stand the test of time. Perhaps it also makes it the best film you’ve never heard of in 2014.
Director: Joon-ho Bong
Cast: Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Kang-ho Song, Ed Harris
Running Time: 126 minutes
Movie Review Snowpiercer