SNOWPIERCER * * * *
Starring Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt and Ed Harris. Screenplay by Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson. Directed by Bong Joon-ho.
This is the one you’ve been waiting for.
Yeah, I know. We’ve all had it up to here lately with dystopian futures and movies based on comic books, but trust me when I tell you that Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer is The Real Deal – a rollicking, ferocious blockbuster rife with wicked allegories and a sicko visionary grandeur. It’s brawny, ballsy and cheerfully subversive. Howard Zinn meets The Road Warrior on this bumpy, breakneck ride.
A superstar in his native South Korea, Bong is not nearly as well-known in America as he should be. His 2003 Memories of Murder was Zodiac four years before Zodiac, and if you’ve heard of him at all around here it’s probably because of his gonzo follow-up, the politically-loaded and puckishly funny The Host, in which a dysfunctional family battles a gigantic lizard stomping all over Seoul.
The Host famously prompted Quentin Tarantino to call Bong Joon-ho the next Steven Spielberg, but I think a more apt comparison is to prime John Carpenter. Bong makes unapologetically gut-bucket genre pictures with a healthy side-dish of lefty agitprop. (Snowpiercer would be a great double feature with They Live.) They’re also very funny movies.
Loosely adapted by the director and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead screenwriter Kelly Masterson from a 1982 French graphic novel, Snowpiercer begins seventeen years after a botched attempt by scientists to reverse global warming rendered the entire planet an uninhabitable tundra. Humanity’s last holdouts are onboard the title train; a miracle contraption powered by a perpetual motion engine, invented by a madman CEO with delusions of godhood. While annually circumnavigating the globe on an endless trip to nowhere, the passengers have been assigned their place in their cabins each according to his or her own social status.
So we begin at the back of the train, in windowless squalor with the have-nots in a makeshift shanty-town of abject poverty and desperation. All is darkness and rags; everybody subsists on slimy hockey-puck protein bars delivered by jack-booted machine gun-toting thugs. Periodically, emissaries from the front arrive to take away their children, for reasons best left unexplained.
But a change is gonna come, oh yes it is. Our reluctant hero played by Captain America (oops, I meant Chris Evans) is leading a motley insurrection to hashtag-occupy the train’s forward compartments and seize control of the engine room. So Snowpiercer becomes a surreal pilgrim’s progress, with an international cast of ragtag misfits charging forward, car by car, facing one bloody insane, off-kilter set-piece after another. The visual texture and the tone of the film changes with every shift in their surroundings, boasting Bong’s patented hairpin turns from slapstick to tragedy and back again.
I’m hesitant to say much more, as I went into Snowpiercer totally cold and to my great delight the movie kept consistently surprising me for these entire two hours. Most science fiction pictures tend to frontload everything with a massive exposition dump or some ham-fisted narration shortly after the opening credits. Bong strategically withholds information. You only ever know as much as you need to get to that next train car, with the characters, their backstories and the facts of this entire alternate universe only gradually revealed as the battle continues raging forward. It’s a movie that trusts you to be patient and put the pieces together on your own as time goes by. I worry that I have said too much already. Good things come to those who wait.
Evans takes his counsel from John Hurt’s sly tribal elder Gilliam – a name that must be an homage as so much of Snowpiercer feels like Brazil accidentally hooked up one night with Speed after getting drunk inside the Thunderdome. Tilda Swinton almost runs away with it all as a fussy spokeswoman for the oppressors, gone to seed in gnarled dentures and Coke-bottle glasses carrying on like a drag-queen Margaret Thatcher. (She should have played The Iron Lady.)
My favorite is still the star of Bong’s regular stock company, Song Kang-ho, oversized and indolent, huffing industrial waste and hoarding the last cigarettes on the planet. You may remember Song as that dude from The Host who was so dense that a government-mandated lobotomy had no effect on his personality whatsoever, and it’s a nifty inside gag to see him reprising his addled father-daughter routine from that film here again with Ah-sung Ko.
If I might extend that earlier Carpenter comparison perhaps beyond the breaking point: I really like Chris Evans. It dawned on me while watching Snowpiercer for a second time just how much he reminds me of Carpenter’s favorite leading man, Kurt Russell. The two share an unguarded rapport with the audience that makes foursquare, old-fashioned decency feel somehow badass. (Say what you will about Marvel Studios’ plan for worldwide multiplex domination, at least they gave us Evans’ Captain America, a character I will follow until what sometimes feels like The End Of Cinema. Franchise garbage aside, it is still a lovely performance.)
But Bong Joon-ho throws us a curveball in that regard as well, giving The Star Spangled Man a late-movie monologue I can’t believe Evans’ agents allowed. That’s the thing about Snowpiercer, it always zigs left when you think it’s headed right.
Get me started at a bar sometime and I’ll explain my theory of how the ending is an elaborate piss-take on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (complete with Ed Harris as John Galt!) Snowpiercer isn’t just a movie worth seeing, it’s a movie worth arguing about.