Snowpiercer: a claustrophobic dystopia
Another year, another dystopian movie. Will people ever stop making movies based on projections of the bleakest future of humanity? I hope not, because among the neon-lit urban settings, dirty creepers on the street level, and endless sight of skyscrapers, there will be some of them that will stand out as true classics of the developing genre known as dystopian cinema. Cuaron’s 2006 Children of Men is one that has been hailed as a modern classic, even when it’s not consciously putting itself in the ever-so-familiar grim metropolitan landscape that Blade Runner popularized. This is also the case with Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer: At first, having won an invitation from Jakarta International Film Festival to a special screening of the Korean auteur’s Hollywood debut (thank you Muvila!), I wasn’t particularly excited to the thought of watching yet another film with ragged slum dwellers battling futuristic machines. But Snowpiercer ultimately proves to be something of an outlier in the dystopian genre, and might very well fare better critically than other blockbusters of this year.
Adapted from a French graphic novel La Transperceneige, of course there are plenty of backstory that need to be curbed so to not add excessive length to the 2-hour film. Joon-ho chose to spill them in a straight out text-on-screen method, which admittedly seems practical, if not pragmatist. The alternate history of how a substance released into the air to fight global warming that turned the world into a freezing wasteland was appropriately compacted, though, as the film will no longer expand into past details but rather on the life aboard the eternal train ‘Snowpiercer’ that runs endlessly around the world on a perpetual engine, built by the eccentric magnate Wilford to contain what is left of humanity for the last 17 years since the accident happened. Yet, the central theme of the story is not the post-apocalyptical chronicle of humanity, but instead social disparity: The thirtysomething Curtis (Chris Evans) has been living along with the unprivileged people on the back of the train that is not unlike the prison with armed guards and food rations in the form of protein blocks. The class system goes a long way, literally, because along the length of the train, the life of its inhabitants gets more civilized and peaceful with Wilford living in the frontmost of the train in the face of its sacred perpetual engine. With his sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell), Curtis has planned a revolt to regain their freedom by pushing their way to the front, fighting endless line of guards headed by the borderline crazy Mason (Tilda Swinton).
From here the story is quite easy to guess: The outcasts fight their way up to the front, one car at a time, with a colorful choice of casts including Octavia Spencer (the maid from The Help), John Hurt, and also Joon-ho’s frequent collaborator Song Kang-ho and the young Ko Ah-sung as father-daughter pair of substance addicts who doubles as the gate opener for each car. It essentially transforms into a more familiar structure of video gaming where you pass through levels with increasing difficulty, and it’s only natural if at one point in the future there will be a game released based on the movie. The good thing is you don’t always get stuck in the gritty industrial setting, though, because as the story progresses, the interior evolves into various spaces, from a grade school classroom to Seaworld-like aquarium tunnel — all set within tight spaces as much as a railroad car can allow, so props to the set designers for creating such a potential masterpiece.
Even when the first 15 minutes is wholly unconvincing from a storytelling perspective, fortunately, as evident in his past works, Joon-ho can create a great narrative to wrap all the seemingly loose ends from various points in the story into a solid plot. Some aspects tread the fine line between “better left unsaid” and “disappointingly unexplained” (why the only option to survive is to ride the train is one of them), but for what it’s worth, Joon-ho did well by focusing only to the part that matters to the story — that is, the revolution of the oppressed. The tail people’s revolt isn’t much of a Occupy Wall Street story but rather slanted to the hack ‘n slash approach, with a particular battle scene full of people with hatchets that will remind you of the iconic Oldboy scene (Park Chan-wook is indeed the producer of this film). Unlike the other sci-fi fictions with social disparity as its main theme, Snowpiercer instead focuses on creating an immersing story regardless of the moral value, and carefully weaving its social commentary in between the dialogue, particularly in the development of the Curtis character. This approach as a whole is better at engaging the audience, while still leaving something to ponder on after the credit rolls.
Still, the cream of the crop is reserved for the impeccable acting that fill every scene with emotional intensity. Chris Evans as Curtis might be unconvincing in the first sight, but his 2-dimensional character quickly turns into a persona that people can empathize on. Tilda Swinton, though, is the real face of the black humor that Snowpiercer is so full of: Over-the-top, expressive sociopath that is unabashedly evil yet still funny in a certain light. Other characters like the classroom teacher, impeccably played by Alison Pill (that chick from The Newsroom), puts on questionable moral values hidden in a borderline crazy behavior not unlike the people in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Ultimately, the strength of the film lies in the hands of its actors working up the effective script, and the claustrophobic dystopian setting serves more effectively in the background to support Snowpiercer as a mostly action film with a sci-fi theme, and a damn good one at that. Definitely watch it when the wide release comes to your nearest theater.