Monday, June 23, 2014

Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer

In the future, the world will become a giant allegory. Nothing in this claustrophobic dystopia performs a practical purpose, but serves a vision of class warfare at its most extreme. At least it all looks cool when the train’s tail-section revolts in Bong Joon-ho’s first English language production Snowpiercer (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Seventeen years ago, a climate control experiment went horribly wrong. Now that the Earth is a frozen wasteland, the only surviving humans live in the protection of the globe circling train providentially prepared by the mysterious Wilford. However, instead of assigning productive tasks to each survivor, the Wilford express maintains a rigid and baffling bizarre social caste system. The further up you travel, the richer, crueler, and idler the passengers get. It’s all sushi and filet mignon up front, but gelatinous protein bars for the proletarian in the tail-section, who do not really appear to work either, but just sit around waiting to be beaten by the guards (apparently the train’s only productive class).

Curtis Everett has emerged as the leader of the proles in the back of the train, whether he likes it or not. He is still haunted the things he did during his darkest, most desperate hours, but old Gilliam provides encouragement and wise counsel to the budding revolutionary. Everett is biding his time, waiting for a cue from a source ensconced somewhere further up the train, but the arbitrary ruthlessness of Minister Mason, a buck-toothed caricature of an elitist exploiter, forces his hand. Freeing Nam-gung Min-su, the drug-addled Korean security specialist who designed the train’s door locks, and his train-born daughter Yo-na, Everett and his followers plan to fight their way to the engine room. Stopping anywhere short of that will doom their revolt.

Frankly, Snowpiercer is even less subtle than it sounds. Tilda Swinton is a great screen thespian, but her portrayal of Mason is embarrassingly cringey. She is also emblematic of the film’s fundamental problem—this simply is not a believable world. People act mean and savage for no logical reason accept to live up to a class-based stereotype. Nonetheless, production designer Ondřej Nekvasil and art director Štefan Kováčik created a distinctively detailed calling card that ought to earn them a gig on the next Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton film.

If you prefer your movie leads on the sullen side than you will probably be okay with Chris Evans’ turn as Everett. He is a brooding machine, but looks respectable during the well-staged action sequences. John Hurt’s Obiwan shtick also works well enough for Gilliam the sage. However, the only real surprises found in the film come from the characters of Nam-gung Min-su and Yo-na—as well as the respective performances of Korean superstar Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung, his juvenile co-star in The Host. Viewers should keep their eyes on this tandem, because together they nearly redeem all of Snowpiercer’s flaws.

Uncut by the Weinsteins, Snowpiercer is so didactic it will give intellectually sophisticated viewers a headache. Yet, there are fascinating Easter Eggs buried throughout it, thanks to a skilled design team and Bong’s Host alumni. Diverting for those who appreciate spectacle and mayhem, but disappointing on any deeper level, Snowpiercer opens this Friday (6/27) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.