Thursday, July 17, 2014

Brain Freeze: Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer

Well, it was bound to happen one day. And today is that day. We try our best to run new reviews daily and we've succeeded for the past four years in doing so. With a growing archive, however, it sometimes gets hard to remember whether we've already reviewed a work - especially if that work has had a problematic release schedule. Of course, we sometimes deliberately run two reviews of the same film, play, or book, when there are contrary opinions at issue. But until today, it was never inadvertent. Justin Cummings had already reviewed Snowpiercer back in June (before it opened theatrically in Canada) and I simply forgot that he had done so for a number of reasons that don't require delving into here. So sit back and enjoy Phil Dyess-Nugent's sharp take on a problematic film. My apologies to Justin. His equally smart review can be found here.

Kevin Courrier,
Critics at Large.  

Snowpiercer, the first English-language production directed by the Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, blundered into the news last year, when it was reported that its North American distributor, Harvey Weinstein, intended to cut twenty minutes from the director’s version. The resulting explosion of outrage and indignation got Weinstein to back off. The movie has mostly gotten great reviews since it opened in America, and it’s tempting to think that some of that is a show of support for the director and his commitment to his full, 128-minute vision, like the Best Picture award that the Los Angeles Film Critics Association lavished on Terry Gilliam’s Brazil prior to its North American release, when the director was still battling Universal Pictures over which version would make it into theaters in the U.S.

With Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host (2006), Bong established himself as one of the freshest, boldest new filmmakers of recent years, and the ambitious Snowpiercer is his first feature since 2009’s Mother. So it’s easy to pick sides in a fight between him and Harvey Weinstein. I myself remained excited about Snowpiercer even after I saw a trailer for it that, if it had been for a movie that had sprung from the loins of some heavyweight American shlockmeister like Michael Bay, would have set off alarm systems at Indiewire and inspired a dozen editorials about the death of film. Well, I thought to myself when Bong’s name appeared at the climax of a chaotic flood of butt-ugly images and baffling moments, probably whoever cut this together had no idea how to suggest the nuances of the complete work.

director Bong Joon-ho.
The preceding sentence marks the only time that you will ever encounter the word “nuances” in something written about Snowpiercer. It’s a terrible movie and a singularly unpleasant experience, and its problems can’t all be attributed to the awkwardness any director might feel making his first movie in a foreign language. The screenplay, by Bong and Kelly Masterson, is based in a French graphic novel that dates back to the early 1980s, but Bong has shaped the material into a numbingly obvious metaphor for the war on the ninety-nine percent by the heartless rich thugs snugly ensconced at the top—or, in the film’s language, at the front of the train. 

A scientific experiment intended to combat global warming has backfired and brought on a second Ice Age. Seventeen years later, the only surviving members of the human race are the passengers aboard a massive train built by a megalomaniacal engineer-tycoon (Ed Harris, whose character here might be the corporatist twin brother of his reality-TV Creator in The Truman Show.) The rich enjoy their privileges in the spacious, elegantly designed cars toward the front; the rest are stuffed together in the back, left to prey on each other and watch their children disappear when the guys with guns who maintain the social order come around to pull them away for some mysterious errand. The poor don’t even seem to have access to soap, and wear rags that are falling off their bodies while they are munching on nasty-looking “protein bars” that suggest rectangular slabs of hardened excrement. Maybe the nicest thing you can say about Snowpiercer is that it feels less like a Bong Joon-ho movie than like this year’s Elysium.

Chris Evans plays the hero, Curtis, a strapping young man who’s determined to storm the front of the train and liberate his fellow downtrodden. (He is, it’s revealed late in the picture, trying to redeem himself for the awful things he did early in the pot-apocalyptic era. Two words: Soylent green.) John Hurt is the aged leader of the rebels, who is looking to anoint Curtis as his successor. Curtis isn’t sure he’s up to the job. He has a point. Despite his warrior’s physique and bearing, there’s something weak and hapless about him. The virtuousness niceness that forms Evans’ core when he plays Captain America is missing here, and nothing has been added to take its place. This, it turns out, is probably intentional. Evans’ performance is impaled on a big twist that comes near the end. In terms of logically working out the movie’s metaphor, you can see the thinking behind it: it’s based on big ideas about the one percent’s long-term game plan and puppet mastery, and the proletariat’s complicity in its own exploitation.

Ed Harris in Snowpiercer.

But in story and character terms, it’s just the latest in a string of developments and decisions that make no sense at all. Bong and Masterson haven’t really done the heavy lifting of turning their metaphor into a story that’s believable on its own terms. The only entertainment comes from Tilda Swinton, who plays the liaison officer between the two camps. Speaking in the exaggerated diction of a common dope trying to sound oracular and unspooling long harangues about how one camp is like a hat, which naturally belongs on one’s head, whereas the poor are like a shoe, which goes on the head—and using a man (Ewan Bremner) whose arm is being detached as a prop—she’s like Margaret Thatcher with Sarah Palin’s brain. Her stylized, theatrical performance goes with the elaborate production design and the narrative’s fanciful relationship to logic, but most of the rest of the cast, which includes Octavia Spencer, Song Kang-ho, and Jamie Bell, perform more or less naturalistically, which adds to the overall tonal confusion. (There may also be some attempt at stylization on the part of Ewan Bremner, who makes exaggerated, bug-eyed, slack-jawed faces while he’s being abused and mangled. On the other hand, he might just be Ewan Bremner.)

Bong’s earlier movies were witty, clear-eyed takes on genre stories that also managed to work beautifully as entertaining, stylish genre movies in their own right. (For a smart, satisfying, visually elegant take on the end-of-the-world genre, you’d be better off settling in with Guillermo del Toro’s pilot episode for the new TV series The Strain.) Most of the imaginative work here has gone into the design of the different train compartments, just as most of the hard imaginative work on David Lynch’s Dune was in the look and feel of the d├ęcor and wardrobes favored by the denizens of the different planets on which the action took place. Dune was clearly just a blip in Lynch’s career, and it would be pleasant to assume the same about Snowpiercer and Bong’s future career, except that Snowpiercer isn’t hackwork; it’s a shambles, especially compared to Bong’s earlier films, but it also has the weight and conviction of a dream project. It suggests what might have happened if the Stanley Kubrick of Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut—Kubrick at his most inhumanly self-important and single-mindedly focused on the inessentials—had directed the script for Dr. Strangelove. Those of us who believe that Kubrick did his best work before he became the official genius of cinema, with every movie reaching for world masterpiece status, do not invoke that name lightly.

 Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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