It would be fair to suggest that Snowpiercer is fairly polarising, caught between those berating huge holes in internal logic and those raving about thematic depth. For witnesses of the former persuasion, there’ a need to highlight how implausible the futuristic scenario is, and how the movie does little to make it any less so as it progresses. This is fair comment, although how crucial it is to enjoyment, within context of the picture’s yo-yoing tone, is debatable. For those in the latter camp, at the other end of the scale (or rail), Jong-Ho Boon’s latest film is a skilfully manifested allegory for the eternal mechanism of societal and/or political power structures. Snowpiercer is undoubtedly eager to make much of this element, but I’m not sure anyone could seriously label Boon’s sledgehammer approach deep. The resulting film is an enjoyable, often exhilarating mess; alternately silly on purpose and by mistake, smart and yet dumb, thrilling but banal, both very funny and unfortunately po-faced.
One only needs to hear a brief plot outline to raise an eyebrow, or indeed both, at the film’s mangy premise. An experiment to defeat global warming (using a substance called CW-7) goes horribly wrong, inflicting a new ice age upon the Earth. The only survivors managed to board a ginormous train, one that somehow speeds along a track that extends right around the world (there’s a complementary enactment movie within movie called The Wilford Story, explain how “hero” Wilford achieved this, which is amusing for its home-made quality but, really, only emphasises rather than atones for the daftness). This train never stops (even though there are only polar bears outside to maintain the tracks; presumably the avalanche in the movie is the only such occurrence in 17 years) and runs on a perpetual-motion engine (just like the indefatigable apparatus of society, geddit?). The passengers have been instituted according to the merits of their ticket purchase; First Class, Economy, and “the freeloaders” (as Tilda Swinton’s grotesquely amusing Minister Mason puts it). The latter are consigned to the rear section, existing in filth and darkness and living off protein bars made from CGI cockroaches (the CGI in this movie is reasonably lousy, but this isn’t a make-or-break issue). One such of their number, Curtis (Chris Evans), is attempting the latest in a series of revolutions; as he says to mentor and leader Gilliam (John Hurt), “All past revolutions have failed because they couldn’t take the engine”. The writing is on the wall for Bong’s intentions when he also announces, “If we control the engine, we control the world”. It’s the perpetuation of control that counts; the individual players are interchangeable.
We follow Curtis’ revolt and his progression through a series of carriages and environments (social classes and milieu), some of them kinetic, some dramatic, some satirical, some plain dumb. The name of Hurt’s character is clearly invoking the controlled lunacy and dystopian fever dreams of Terry Gilliam (as can be seen in Brazil, 12 Monkeys and most recently The Zero Theorem) but, much as some may blanche at the idea that Gilliam possesses such a thing, Bong lacks the giggling Python’s consistency of tone. Individual scenes are hilarious, overblown and excessive, but the thematic content is likewise untamed. Indeed, its director-writer lays it on with a trowel in a manner Gilliam would surely baulk at. Bong co-wrote the screenplay to his first (mostly) English language film, based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, with Kelly Masterson. Masterson was previously responsible for Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Sidney Lumet’s ridiculously overwrought final film.
Snowpiercer is a classic film for bringing out belittling exchanges between those who sit on one side or other of the appreciative fence. The rallying cry of those who adore the movie tends towards “You didn’t understand it”. One area that consequently invites much discussion and brickbats is literalism, and drawing attention to logical deficiencies in a narrative; or, missing the wood for the trees, as seems to be general beef towards those fixing on inconsistencies. I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that; after all, there’s no “one-size fits all” to critical gaze. Sometimes examining the innards is entirely justified, as the plot invites scrutiny through the nuts and bolts of its construction (for example, a detective thriller). It can be a basic requirement for anyone who values verisimilitude. At others such evaluation can become an obstacle to embracing the otherwise merits and the cut-and-thrust of a piece; be that an emotional core, an overt commentary or a pervading subtext. If the latter aspects are strong enough and sufficiently well executed then other criticisms ought to become negligible or mere niggles. I say this because, though the idiocy of the premise of Snowpiercer didn’t affect my enjoyment, I can quite see how it could be a turn-off and I wouldn’t seek to disavow another’s view of the picture on that basis.
At the same time, though, I’m not fully on board with the free pass approach of, “Well, duh, stupid! It’s an allegory! It doesn’t have to make sense”. Which is effectively what Bong told Chris Evans, just without the “duh, stupid”. The real trick, as alluded to in the preceding paragraph and arguably where Snowpiercer doesn’t fully succeed, is that if your allegory, or more simply put your story, is sufficiently compelling the viewer isn’t going to become mired in questioning the supporting paraphernalia of the fictional world. Bong engages in more tonal shifts in Snowpiercer than a John Landis movie and, if as many hit the target as miss, it means he struggles to sell some of his more provocative moments just as he invites derision for some of his less considered.
Some have paralleled the film with The Matrix Reloaded, and it was persistently in my thoughts as it concluded. Unlike most who have made the comparison, I think it’s Snowpiercer that suffers. Not because Reloaded is wholly successful (it certainly is not, although I like it a whole lot more than most; it’s Revolutions where great chunks are redundant), but because it is genuinely more audacious, and less on-the-nose, in saying essentially the same thing and in so doing pulling the rug from under viewer expectations. Both pictures arrive at the point where a character unleashes a torrent of exposition; the excessive loquacity of Will Ferrell’s Architect and here Ed Harris’ Wilfred. We discover that everything that has transpired is part of a pre-determined system; even the insurgencies have been planned out (both pictures emphasise cyclical culls or reboots, in order to keep the presiding structure essentially intact). The “Revolt of the Seven” stands as an annual reminder, a cautionary tale to those who don’t submit to the prevailing world of the train. This is an edifice of conditioning, of which even those who are self-aware at the top and bottom – Wilfred, and Gilliam – are inmates; “We are all prisoners in his hunk of metal”. The lie presented is that there is no other way; it this is the lie that allows Wilfred to justify his horrific choices. That it is for the good of all, the perpetuation of the eternal machine. As Wilfred tells the stunned Curtis, “It is easier for someone to survive on this train if they have some level of insanity”; as such he takes it upon himself to ensure that “We need to maintain a proper balance of anxiety, fear, chaos, horror, in order to keep life going. And if we don’t have that, we need to invent it”.
All well and good; it’s a particularly neatly placed idea that the mechanism of control is mutually agreed at top and bottom; “The front and the tail are supposed to work together”. That hierarchies, at whatever level of social order, or under whichever political system, essentially amount to the same thing. Where Snowpiercer stumbles is that its allegory needs to be especially affecting if it is to justify the excesses in plot and tone. Some may celebrate Bong’s inconsistency, but the danger is that the stuff that really matters fails to cohere. When Wilford follows his explanations with “The train’s the world, we the humanity” you have to even question the validity of labelling Bong’s picture an allegory. Is it any longer an allegory when announces explicitly what it is? When there is no hidden meaning for the viewer or reader to surmise for themselves? I can see how Bong went and did it; he got so carried away he wanted to make the statement outright. It’s the same kind of thinking that leads to the achingly literal device of showing where all the children disappeared to; they have become mere parts in the engine, replacing its failing gears. This is what the system does! It makes slaves of us before we have a chance to think for ourselves!
Where Snowpiercer and The Matrix (Reloaded and Revolutions) differ is that Bong offers an olive branch of hope; unlike the Wachowski’s endless cycle, it is possible to step off the train and strike out, ploughing one’s own furrow based on one’s own principles. As such it’s the children (Marcanthonee Reis as Timmy) and the free thinkers (Ah-sung Ko as psychic Yona) who will inherit the earth. Those such as Nam (Kang-ho Song) can see that it is possible to survive outside of the pre-ordained milieu (he uses the same faculty to do so that got humanity into this mess – scientific reasoning – but he is notably a drug addict, a traditional a disillusioned reject from society; it’s debatable whether drug use stands as a freer from or just another control system, but it’s a handy metaphor in this case). Perhaps Bong’s Catholic background comes into play somewhere here, even subtextually; psychic abilities are the closest anyone comes in the film to displaying spiritual consciousness; a personal awareness that is, as opposed to the trappings of religious iconography voiced by Mason and her “The engine is sacred, and Wilfred is divine! Wilfred is merciful!” Likely, Bong is lumping any system of control, be it religious or scientific (The Host also had a dim view of the latter’s propensity for misapplication) in with wider social and political rule.
If Snowpiercer and The Matrix (Revolutions) conclude on different notes, Neo and Curtis arrive at the position of self-sacrifice from very different places. True, both are chosen, but Neo is relatively guileless and well meaning. Curtis, in a customarily strong performance from Evans, leads the recognisable path of the revolutionary who becomes that which he despises; a predilection for power and control (despite protestations to the contrary from Curtis) is the corrupting influence, no matter which side of the social divide one sits on. Curtis is willing to sacrifice his men as pawns in a game (most notably Jamie Bell’s Edgar, whom he could have saved but instead he chose to press onwards). It is also evident that Bong is not going to single him out as the kick-ass action maestro like Grey (Luke Pasqualino). Curtis notably fluffs his chance to take out heavy Franco the Younger (Vlad Ivanov), a failure that results in many of his friends dying.
The contrast between Evans’ earnest performance and the rapacious scenery chewing elsewhere is mostly effective; in fact, the performances are one of the few areas where Bong can’t be faulted. There’s a refreshingly international melange of acting styles on display. But this kind of mismatching doesn’t help Evans in the crucial and in/famous “I know that babies taste best” scene (this is a line Harvey Weinstein apparently wanted excised). The idea behind it is sound enough; the depths we can plunge to, where the man we thought was the hero is actually one who was reduced to the status of a wild animal, doing anything to stay alive, but it’s far from a rending moment. For it to be, we’d have to be sold on the world created and the characters that inhabit it. As colourful and crazy as it is, it never attains any level of depth so Curtis’ revelation fails to deliver a gut-wrenching impact. Especially when we are told, “One by one others started cutting off arms and legs”, to provide food. It conjures images of a Monty Python sketch. Who knows, perhaps Bong meant it to be darkly humorous. Either way it’s an uneasy line and I don’t think the scene sustains the intent. The problem is, as with the kid in the machine, it falls on the wrong side of “a bit silly” and so fails to carry a really hefty punch.
It should be little surprise then that the aspects of Snowpiercer I enjoyed most don’t relate to its ungainly allegory. If Bong is absent of the more usual Gilliam surrogate of the dreamer protagonist oppressed by a malignant external world, at times he successfully summons the cartoonist’s lunatic spirit of wonderful weirdness. Top of the list is Swinton’s deranged performance as Mason, a strangled mish-mash of Maggie Thatcher and Janet Street Porter combed over with a broad Yorkshire accent (“This is not a shoe. This is disorder”). With this and The Zero Theorem (and her work with Wes Anderson) Swinton seems to be having enormous fun letting her hair down and playing broad at the moment, and she’s enormous fun to watch.
The various carriages encountered initially suggest we’re progressing through the levels of a computer game, or a spin-off from The Raid, since various effectively staged fights ensue (the odd handheld aside) taking in brutal weaponry, including gimps wielding choppers dripping with the blood of a dead fish and an attack by guards wearing night scopes that turns into a flaming rumble. There’s also a nutty shootout between far distant carriages as the train rounds a long, long bend. Along the way we see a ceiling aquarium, a cramped rave, a Victorian tropical garden, a school and a meat locker along with various other distractions including tailoring, dentistry, steam baths, computers and cages. Best of the lot is the school class, where an egg proffering schoolteacher disengages from indoctrinating her children to open fire at Curtis and company with a machine gun. It’s utterly batty and very funny.
As engaging as Snowpiercer is, I don’t feel it is owed a debt of gratitude for actually saying something about something. Bong’s at his best here when he’s revelling in the weirdness of his world, rather than over-enunciating his allegory. It’s a much more interesting, if still very flawed, piece of work than last year’s technically brilliant but intellectually banal Elysium, but what it has to say and the means by which it says it are frequently as clumsy as they are enervating.