Monday, July 21, 2014

Snowpiercer (2014)

I will say this much up front: if you haven't seen Snowpiercer, Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho's first English-language film, don't read the rest of this review. The less you know about the film, the more its strange pleasures work on you (if you let them, of course; keep an open mind going in). I went to see it knowing only basic premise: the world has been frozen over, and the last remaining survivors are living on a high-powered train that circles the globe. The result was one of the most engaging, entertaining, and fulfilling movie-going experiences I've had in a long time.

Snowpiercer is more than just a great action movie, it's a thoughtful one, with unexpected turns that make it a wholly remarkable experience.

More after the jump.

Here's where the plot thickens: the train has been broken down into class sections. The wealthier passengers live a life of luxury in the front compartments of the train, while the poor have been relegated to the back, where their children are occasionally taken from them and they are fed brown slabs of gelatin called "protein blocks" (and better off not knowing what they're made of). Curtis (Chris Evans) has decided that enough is enough, and is planning on storming to the front of the train to overthrow the mysterious Wilford and take control of passenger's well-being. He'll need assistance though, and he finds it from Edgar (Jamie Bell), Tanya (Octavia Spencer), Grey (Luke Pasqualino), Namgoong (Song Kang-ho) and Yona (Ko Ah-sung), and finding guidance from his friend and Wilford's rival, Gilliam (John Hurt).

Right from the get-go, Snowpiercer plays like a knowing commentary on how these kinds of blockbuster action movies work. Curtis needs to gather a team, and he's got just the right people with just the right skill sets to make this operation work. Each one of them fits a particular caricature, too; Edgar is the younger comic relief, Tanya is the sassy maternal figure, Namgoong is the brooding expert who reluctantly agrees to help. The compartmentalization of the train works perfectly for designating each set-piece, and the get-to-the-front plot provides the film with both a very clear narrative objective and a linear focus. Yet Bong films all of these with a wink and a nudge, which alone elevates the film slightly above standard action movies.

Self-awareness only goes so far, though, so what makes Snowpiercer special is the way Bong inflects it with his own bizarre sensibilities. The compartments contain all manner of unusual business, from a greenhouse to an aquarium (complete with sushi bar) to, in the film's most gonzo sequence, a classroom led by a disturbingly, militantly chipper teacher (Alison Pill). When one compartment opens to reveal that it is filled with armed soldiers waiting for the revolutionaries, it leads to an inventive, hectic action sequence that's unlike anything else this summer. Bong, along with cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo,  have a keen eye for striking visuals, and this makes Snowpiercer a truly arresting film to look at.

Those eccentricities extend to the acting, as well. Evans is a solemn hero, and he does a great job at playing the leader of the group while keeping his head low. Bell and Spencer provide some humorous moments, as well as heartening ones, while Song and Ko unveil the depths in their characters. Pill is incredible at ramping everything up to 11, establishing herself as a genuinely unsettling presence through her hostile glee. But it's Tilda Swinton who delivers the oddest - and possibly best - performance of the film, no stranger to eccentric performances herself. As Mason, the crooked-toothed, androgynous, Scottish-accented Minister, she's a bizarre presence, with her "be a shoe" speech likely to go down as one of the strangest highlights of the film year. It's the kind of way-out-there work that stands out while still completely fitting into the world of the film.

Snowpiercer distinguishes itself in one other crucial way: the treatment of it's thematic material. In the United States, we've grown up on tales of successful revolutions - of a few men standing up for themselves and changing everything for the better - in the history of our nation. We're used to our revolution tales ending in triumph, with the hero succeeding by any means necessary (often through martyrdom) and ending the oppression of the current institution in favor of a much-better world. So it's startling that Bong's film displays a distrust for the effectiveness of such revolutions. Simply changing the leaders, the film suggests, isn't going to change the system. It's a message that is not dissimilar to that of Netflix's Orange is the New Black: even though they are very different works, both propose that corrupt systems will always corrupt those within them, no matter what position an individual holds. It's a mistrust of the effectiveness of revolutions; it also feels like a critique reminiscent of recent popular revolutions, particularly the one in Egypt that has already resulted in the elected president, Mohamed Morsi, being forced out of office. It's a surprising - and refreshing - take for the film to tackle.

There's plenty of thrills and excitement in Snowpiercer, make no mistake. But what makes the film stand out as one of the year's best is how it grafts intelligent themes and big ideas onto it's deceptively simple premise. The train may be permanently circumnavigating the globe, but the film isn't running in circles. A

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