May not be the masterpiece that people were hoping for, but it’s a hell of a fun ride.
It’s hard to watch Snowpiercer without thinking about the last several months of controversy surrounding it. The film, an international production by Korean director Bong Joon-Ho (Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother), had its distribution rights bought up by Harvey Weinstein for the US. The trouble started when it was revealed that Weinstein, feeling the film wouldn’t be understood by midwestern audiences, wanted to cut at least 20 minutes from Bong’s preferred cut. After months of small updates on the matter, an agreement was finally made. Weinstein would release the final cut of Snowpiercer without any alterations, but it would be a limited release instead of a wide one.
The story behind Snowpiercer‘s release, despite having a happy ending, unfortunately changed the way people approach the film. After months of battles over editing, viewers will quietly debate over whether or not Weinstein’s suggestions weren’t exactly so out of line. It’s a shame because, tossing all surrounding controversy aside, Snowpiercer is quite entertaining. It’s a blockbuster in a single location, with enough quirks and artistry to remind audiences how a film like this could only be made outside of the Hollywood studio system. It’s a flawed and sometimes messy film from time to time, but in a manner that’s more risky and exciting instead of frustrating and incompetent.
In the near future, a chemical intended to lower the world’s temperatures ends up working so well that it brings about a new ice age. It’s impossible to live outside, and the small number of remaining survivors live on the titular train. The Snowpiercer travels around the world endlessly, and a highly enforced class system is in place on the train to maintain order. The story starts in 2031, 17 years after the train began running, in the tail section. The tail is reserved for the lower class citizens, with its inhabitants living in squalor with nothing to eat but gelatinous protein bars. Curtis (Chris Evans) and Edgar (Jamie Bell) are in the process of leading a revolt against the oppressive forces from the front of the train, which we only get brief glimpses of from the bizarre characters that visit the back of the train from time to time (this includes a brilliant Tilda Swinton in a performance that single-handedly elevates the entire film).
Curtis and his cohorts (including Octavia Spencer, John Hurt and Bong Joon-Ho regular Song Kang-Ho) successfully overpower security forces in the tail section, thus beginning their journey to confront Wilford, the mysterious engineer making sure the train operates smoothly. Bong, who’s known for his masterful ability to throw abrupt tonal shifts into his work without losing audiences, thrives in his film’s setting. Each train car acts as its own little universe, giving Bong an excuse to change the film’s dynamic while expanding its scale. A huge action sequence can be followed with a bizarre, expository visit to the train’s school, followed by a tense fight scene with almost no dialogue. These sequences, which also show off the incredible set design, are handled with aplomb, and make sure that Snowpiercer never spares a stale moment.
Snowpiercer isn’t without its flaws though. The script, adapted from a French graphic novel by Bong and Kelly Masterson, isn’t exactly subtle with some of its ideas (Early on Curtis says “I’m not a leader”, a line that stamps LEADER in big letters on his forehead), and some elements are introduced for no apparent reason (one character’s clairvoyant abilities is ignored almost immediately after it’s introduced). Still, Bong’s political commentary on the need for oppression to survive is far more interesting of a topic for this kind of film, and the way he expands his film’s scope toward the end is quite entertaining. Snowpiercer may not be the masterpiece that people were hoping for, but that shouldn’t take away from the fact that it’s a hell of a fun ride.