Tuesday, August 19, 2014

All Aboard the First-Class ‘Snowpiercer’

I’m not one of those film enthusiasts who generally buys into the hype – either good or bad – surrounding movies. Burned too many times by the pre-release buzz propagated by the often hive-minded film critic establishment in the mainstream media, I’m immediately wary of any movie released to universal lauds. Likewise, I generally dismiss collective critical denunciation, preferring to judge a film’s merits (or lack thereof) with my own humble analytical viewing skills. Granted for every widely-panned movie that I end up extolling its virtues (yes, I’m talking Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN), there are far more critically-acclaimed films and fan favorites that leave me scratching my head like CABIN IN THE WOODS, AVATAR, and any number of non-genre hype movies (Oh, FOREST GUMP, how I detest thee!).

Naturally, I approached this summer’s buzz-generating SNOWPIERCER with the same abiding skepticism.
SNOWPIERCER marks South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s English-language debut. The film is based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, which was continued as a series with two subsequent volumes penned by Benjamin Legrand in 1999 and 2000, respectively (both Rochette and Legrand have cameos in the film in a clever wink to the story’s literary origins).

When efforts to thwart an environmental catastrophe backfire, cataclysmically spawning a second ice age, the last remnants of humanity are reduced to life aboard a thousand-and-one-car train called the Snowpiercer. The futuristic ice-chewing train is a self-contained ecosystem that hurtles along at precariously high-speeds on a continuous loop of track that circles the globe, with each full rotation marking a calendar year. Designed by an enigmatic billionaire industrialist, the Snowpiercer mirrors the social classism of the lost civilization of the planet it now endlessly circles – with the have’s reveling in the hedonistic opulence of the front of the train while the hordes of have not’s are reduced to the squalid conditions of the rear railway cars. The message is as clear as it is bleak: Classism will survive the apocalypse.
Even as Tilda Swinton’s buck-toothed Minister Mason – a schoolmarmish mid-train official tasked with maintaining social order aboard the Snowpiercer – admonishes the citizens of steerage class to “Know your place, keep your place”, an uprising is in the works. No longer satisfied with either their
spot or lot aboard the “train of life”, a ragtag (and internationally diverse) group of passengers – including their reluctant leader, his sharp-tongued protégé, a mother desperately searching for her taken child, the train’s drug-addled security expert and his wide-eyed daughter (bribed into service with a steady supply of a hallucinogenic drug called kronole) , and their wizened, appendage-challenged mentor – throw their grateful obedience to the wind and make an audacious charge for the front of the train and its malevolent conductor known only as Wilford. Within the film’s philosophical thematic core, the precariousness of social hierarchy erupts into brutal class warfare with comic-book overtones.

What follows is a mesmerizing master class in production and set design as the revolutionaries forge their way forward one railway car at a time. The drab gray palette and cluttered chaos of the rear sections strikingly convey a sense of bleak train-bound claustrophobia that feels downright airless, while the gradual brightness and increasingly whimsical coloring of each successive train car snowballs in synch with the action-packed push forward by the insurgents. The arresting set pieces and costuming – courtesy of production designer Ondrej Nekvasil, set decorator Beata Brendtnerovà, and costume designer Catherine George – visually cement the idea of the train’s compartmentalization as a metaphor for the socioeconomics of society, with each successive car in this self-sufficient Noah’s Ark taking us from poverty to prosperity. Among the Snowpiercer’s many onboard amenities: a nightclub, hair salon, dental suite, classroom, ecological sanctuary, and an aquarium with (in a twisted little visual one-liner) a sushi bar.
Bong assembles a stellar multinational cast that includes Chris Evans (here a very different type of Captain America), John Hurt, Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, Jamie Bell (little Billy Elliot all grown up), Song Kang-ho, Ko Ah-sung, and Alison Pill. Yet it’s the aforementioned Swinton who steals the show and – if there is any justice – this thespian chameleon will be eyeing Oscar gold come awards season.

SNOWPIERCER is one of those rare heavily-hyped movies that actually deserves a one-way ticket to commercial success, despite the best efforts of Svengali-like Harvey Weinstein to inexplicably punish this masterwork by relegating its domestic release to a mere handful of theaters and video on demand channels. Reportedly, Weinstein demanded twenty minutes of cuts to the finished film as well as a new prologue and epilogue; Bong refused. Let’s hope SNOWPIERCER defies the odds stacked against it, realizing its blockbuster potential and leaving Weinstein to choke on one of the film’s gelatinous cockroach-infused protein blocks.
SNOWPIERCER is a potpourri of post-apocalyptic audaciousness, a cinematic experience that blends the high-concept of an arthouse film with the high-octane of a commercial action-thriller. This highly-stylized science fiction masterpiece and intoxicating dystopian nail-biter that alternates between action, high camp, and heavy-handed Orwellian allegories about social stratification. It’s an energetic, wildly-imaginative (literal) train ride through the permafrost of man’s cruelty to one another and the oppressive perversities of economic disparity that prove (at least in Bong’s artistic vision) to be immutable even in the face of extinction.

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