Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Movie Review: Snowpiercer

Reviewed by Michael Popham 
Director Joon-ho Bong's Snowpiercer, which opens in U.S. theaters June 27, is a strange and spectacular film; a dystopian fever-dream that recalls Terry Gilliam's sharpest movies, particularly 12 Monkeys.  Like the best of Gilliam's work, Snowpiercer operates on its own terms and follows its own internal logic.  It's not a film that's meant to be taken literally, or completely seriously for that matter -- carefully seeded through its grim and bloody 126 minutes are moments of absurd and mordant humor.

Like a lot of dystopian movies, this one opens with a bit of exposition.  Eighteen years ago a chemical agent was released into the atmosphere, designed to reverse the effects of global warming.  The results were apocalyptic; the Earth was plunged into a nightmarish deep freeze, one so complete that nothing could survive in it.  All life was extinguished, except in one place: A super-advanced train built by an industrialist named Wilford.  Wilford's train is a titanic feat of engineering, a rolling Galt's Gulch that is entirely self-sufficient.  It takes exactly one year for the train to complete its circuit all the way around the dead and frozen Earth, and it never stops. 

To its inhabitants, the train is the entire world.  And just like our world, it is a deeply stratified place: there are those with wealth and power, and those who live in abject squalor.  The former are wined and dined in posh compartments near the front of the train, while the latter are jammed in together, hungry and desperate, in the dank and filthy compartments farthest back.

Those confined to the tail section are essentially prisoners, and they live and die at the whim of the soldiers and bureaucrats who occasionally visit the rear compartments.  Sometimes these visitors come to enforce order, or mete out cruel punishments, or count the number of people still living  -- and sometimes they come to take away the smallest of the children born there, for reasons unknown.

The back-of-the-train-dwellers are led by a man named Curtis (Chris Evans) who with his friend Edgar (Jamie Bell) dreams of overthrowing their oppressors.  Others have attempted to seize the forward cars in the past, we are told, but those attempts all failed.  Curtis's people are at a tremendous disadvantage because not only are they unarmed, but they know little about what awaits them in the cars ahead.  No one who has ever been taken to the forward compartments has ever returned.

Under the guidance of his mentor, the wise septuagenarian Gilliam (John Hurt), Curtis hatches an audacious plot to seize control of the train, and confront the Ayn-Randian Wizard of Oz behind everything, the enigmatic Mr. Wilford (Ed Harris).  Curtis is aided by security expert Namgoong (Song Kang-Ho) and his daughter Yona (Ko-Ah-seong), who take as payment cubes of an hallucinogenic drug called Kronol.  Along the way they kidnap the supercilious bureaucrat Mason (Tilda Swinton, in a sterling performance) who proves to be an extremely reluctant though occasionally useful ally.

Chris Evans turns in a surprisingly solid performance here, and he reveals himself to be a better actor than his portrayal of Captain America would suggest.  Tilda Swinton stands out as the sadistic and daffy Mason, and Ko-Ah-seong is equally memorable as a young woman who has lived her entire life on board the train. 

It's tempting to compare Snowpiercer with Neill Blomkamp's similarly-themed Elysium from just last year, but the two films differ quite radically, not just in plot but in tone.  Elysium was a morality play tailored for a mass audience, and for the sake of that mass audience its smartest ideas were pushed aside as it descended into a conventional shoot-em-up.  

Snowpiercer is faster-paced, angrier; too bloody to be regarded as art-house fare but too off-kilter and full of troubling ideas to rock your local cineplex.  If you look for plot holes in the movie they will practically leap off the screen at you. It's better to just accept the movie on its own terms, the way you'd accept the logic in a dream. At some point, if you're paying attention,  it will occur to you that everyone on the train is simply crazy, and this is true. 

But as a microcosm of Earth, that's only to be expected.

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