Some people don’t like their sci-fi messy, can’t handle it if it isn’t clean and mannered, and I look down my nose in pity at those people like poor sad bastards choking down cardboard-flavored cinematic chicken breasts who’ll never know the joy of the greasy ribs I’m spilling on myself. There are few things I like better than a film that feels like it’s constantly growing just slightly faster than its creator’s ability to control it, a concoction of such inspired madness and enthusiasm that it’s actually volatile – a story that took over a life; a script that’s just shy of feeling like it could’ve been a suicide note. Mainstream blockbusters have a way of feeling like a power point presentation put together by a committee, members of the team shooting down each other’s craziest ideas, all a little hesitant to open up with each other. “Maybe make it about robots – people like robots, right?”
Whereas ‘Snowpiercer’ feels like Bong Joon-ho running into the room bug-eyed, his first human contact in weeks, his arms full of beakers and dolls, out of breath and spilling shit onto the floor. It’s weird. Exuberantly weird. Stylish without feeling mannered. And it has that tearing-your-hair-out quality of someone earnestly trying to make sense of existence, which I will always value more highly than slick plotting or an entirely coherent message. Passion trumps logic every time.
The best way I can describe ‘Snowpiercer,’ ‘The Host’ director Bong Joon-Ho’s first foray into English-language filmmaking, is that it’s sort of like ‘Delicatessen‘ on a train, but more violent. ‘Snowpiercer’ and the Jeunet classic have similarly odd and fully realized notions of dystopian alternate universes, rightly focusing on the basics of life – food and shelter – and camp schlock visual styles, though ‘Snowpiercer’ might be more ambitious. Set on a train called the Snowpiercer, it takes place in a future where, straight out of a chemtrail theorist‘s darkest fever dreams, the governments (LIZARD PEOPLE) have gotten together to spray a chemical into the atmosphere to counteract global warming. Only it works a little too well, freezing the planet and killing off all life, so we’re told, except for the inhabitants of this one, permanently-running, luxury super train built by a madman.
The train is divided into sections like the Titanic, with the first-class passengers chowing steaks in front, and the stowaway and steerage supplicants confined to the tail, squished sardine-like into mobile favelas and subsisting solely on soylent green-style bricks of gelatinous protein (“Mmm, gelatinous protein,” -Your Mom). That’s where Chris Evans and his band of felt-clad Dickensian grime faces mean to begin a revolt, provided they can get past train company rep Tilda Swinton, who manages to out-do even Elizabeth Banks in the ‘Hunger Games’ in the preening ridiculously costumed totalitarian functionary department. Swinton, naturally, controls an entire gang of black-clad fascist thugs who are only too happy to waste some poor people. Actresses all seem to get off on playing the imperious, all-powerful Khaleesi-style queen, but Swinton is too good of an actress to do one-note domineering, playing the Thatcher-esque Wilford Train Company mouthpiece Mason as venal, dowdy, schoolmarmish, slightly scattered, and incredibly British, in a way that still comes off so fabulous that the group of gay men sitting in front of me applauded every time she was onscreen (I saw it on Pride weekend in San Francisco, which I would also recommend).
Evans, along with his cheeky little brother played by Jamie Bell (who is sort of one note – does he have a gear besides “sullen?”) and dying mentor John Hurt, moves his revolt slowly towards the front of the train (“We control the engine, we control the world,”) picking up a drug-addicted security expert (Kang-Ho Song) along the way and revealing one new white-box production design challenge after the next. The beauty of the plot is that it works both as an excuse for world building and as a philosophical exercise. We’re discovering this world in stages, and each new car offers a new wrinkle and adds to our picture of the Snowpiercer universe, but always there’s the unspoken question, what does the chimney sweep gang actually want to do when they get to the front of the train? Do they believe that there’s a way to reorder this train society more equitably or do they just want to be the ones eating the steaks? It’s kind of the big question for any revolution or minority group. Become a fair and just leader, or crush your enemies into dust while riding into the square on a slut-pulled chariot made of cocaine like Tony Montana?
It’s what a sci-fi or action movie should be, a creative hero’s journey with enthusiastic world building, but also something to chew on (mentally) for those of us with teeth, who aren’t just gumming butter substitute-braised popcorn by the flipper full (people watching Transformers, say).
It is, as I said, a bit messy, and certainly not for everyone. With so many interesting things going on in every car – a scene where Alison Pill plays a schoolteacher indoctrinating her students in Wilford Company lore is a particular highlight – all the chop-socky fight scene bullshit gets a little tedious. Worse, Ho and his cinematographer Hong Kyung-Pyo often shoot the fights while transparently just shaking the camera around, this sort of odd Asian variety show twist on the Bourne-style shaky cam. It’s obnoxious, but part of me still appreciates that they haven’t sanded away the particular weirdness of it, or the seemingly pathological need for endless fight scenes that seems even more common in Asian cinema than in American. Because when you get the kind of close-shot, scene-chewing, vamped up silliness from Swinton and Pill that you’d never see in a more mainstream Hollywood production, it makes up for it.
The ending isn’t totally satisfying, because they answer their own question about reordering society with a bit of a deus ex machina (“what if it wasn’t society!”). But, you know, at this point I don’t expect my action movies to answer all of the universe’s great unanswerable questions in a satisfactory manner, I’m just happy to see that they asked.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.