Cult Korean director Bong Joon-ho (Oldboy, The Host) makes his US debut with this dystopian sci-fi movie set aboard a perpetually moving train after an experiment to halt the effects of global warming failed, causing an ice age and killing most of the world's population.
So the world’s pretty much ended, frozen into lifeless immobility after an attempt to regulate global warming went badly awry. But there’s this train which keeps circling the planet on a global rail network, endlessly speeding through the white wastelands, and powered by…
Actually, come to think of it, what is it powered by?
No matter. Aboard the train—known as ‘Snowpiercer’—live the remnants of humanity. Or rather, some live: the elite who occupy its reportedly lavish front carriages. The rest, consigned to the filthy rear of the locomotive, merely exist—and often barely even that, assailed as they are by occasional incursions from militiamen who abduct some of their children, for purposes that remain worryingly unclear.
This Apartheid-like segregation was devised by the train’s inventor, the enigmatic Wilford (Ed Harris), who now haunts his creation a little like the Wizard of Oz. But as the film opens, 17 years have passed, and class-resentments have simmered to boiling point. So much so, that a number of the filthy, huddled masses have actively begun to plot insurrection. Under the command of the handsome, haunted Curtis (Chris Evans) and his elderly, one-armed mentor Gilliam (John Hurt), they plan to force open the doors between the carriages, move upward to the engine room, and bring some semblance of equality to their conditions.
But to do this, they must first free a security expert, the crankily self-interested Namgoong Minsu—played by Korean superstar Song Kang-ho (who, though making his international debut, shows a touching disinterest in learning or speaking any language but his own). He in turn demands they take his daughter Yona, a drug addict like himself; reluctantly, the conspirators agree. And so they set off…
You will either buy the conceit—in essence, a Marxist allegory only a few shades more subtle than Elysium—or you won’t; suffice it to say, the story bears only a glancing relationship to anything resembling reality. (Who built the train tracks? How did the project get finished in time? How did Wilford even know the climate-mission would fail?) In adapting the French graphic novel La Transperceniege, director Bong Joon-ho has partnered with American screenwriter Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead), but can’t quite dispel the element of pure fantasy that lies at the heart of this creation. And as such—and as Hurt’s character’s name suggests—it’s very much part of a cinematic tradition: heir to the hermetically enclosed, purpose-built steampunk dystopias devised by Terry Gilliam and Guillermo del Toro and Caro & Jeunet.
Mindful of its physical limitations, the narrative of the film is as linear and straightforward as any video game, following the protagonists’ movement through the train as they proceed from one carriage/level to the next, encountering and defeating various adversaries along the way. It’s less a single narrative than a chain of linked, often spectacular set-pieces: a knife fight in almost total darkness, lit by occasional flashes from outside, that seems intended as an homage to the hammer-fight from Oldboy; a sniper using a long bend as an excuse to pick off people on the carriages ahead…
In this regard, they’re well served by the ingenuity of Czech production designer Ondrej Nekvasil (the film was shot almost entirely at Prague’s Barrandov Studios), who creates a series of distinct, self-enclosed mini-worlds for them to move between—from the drab grey utilitarianism of the proles’ quarters, through successively more spacious and surreal environments: a sinister, day-glo schoolroom, an aquarium, even a nightclub…
But what’s refreshing about Bong’s universe is its maker’s very Korean lack of sentimentality. As in his breakout hit The Host, there’s no guessing who here will survive and who will not; any and all of these characters are fair game. Nor is a happy ending guaranteed: his worldview inclines toward the determinist, and he has a showman’s sense of surprise; he loves nothing better than to pull the rug out from beneath the viewer.
But he’s also taken care to pare this narrative back to its barest essentials. There’s no romance, here (unlike the original comic), and precious little in the way of character-development; these people don’t change, and neither, for the most part, does the world they inhabit. For the filmmaker as for the train, velocity and momentum are everything; nothing is allowed to distract from the immediate objective—the single, urgent task at hand. The result is gorgeous to watch, yet oddly distancing, as chilly and expedient as the world it describes.
Part of the problem might reside in the casting. John Hurt is his usual dependable self—and Jamie Bell is as impressive as ever, in a relatively small role. But Chris Evans is a strictly functional leading man, as grimly monochrome as the costume he wears. Ed Harris, when he appears, seems oddly uncommitted, and Octavia Spencer—as a mother searching for her missing child—is given far too little to do. It falls to Tilda Swinton—here operating firmly in her cartoon-grotesque mode (see also: Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel)—to steal the show, with a performance apparently channelling late Thora Hird, and a look that appears intended to confirm the dismal state of Scottish dentistry.
Like Stoker, made by Bong’s friend and colleague Park Chan-wook (who serves as a producer, here), the film was intended as both a consolidation and an advance. In extending their activities into English-language filmmaking, it seemed the logical next step for filmmakers who were fast outgrowing the limits of their own national industry. But Stoker—terrific though it was—underperformed badly at the US box office, and this one’s journey to the market has been little happier. After being turned down by both Cannes and Venice, it premiered in Seoul last August. (By the time it screened in Berlin—a late and somewhat baffling inclusion—it had already opened in 10 territories.) And most of its advance publicity has been dominated by reports of interference from Harvey Weinstein, who has demanded 20 minutes be cut for its US release. It took $60m at the South Korean box-office, but its international prospects already seem tainted.
Which is not altogether unreasonable, since it resembles a summer blockbuster in name only. It’s too dark and pessimistic, too flat-out odd for mass appeal; and some of the CGI effects—the exterior shots of the Snowpiercer, in particular—look cheap. It seems more likely to confound US audiences than to delight them.
But perhaps Song Kang-ho has the right idea: why bother to speak their language when they’ll never learn yours?