Reviewed for Shockya by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Screenplay: Bong Joon-ho, Kelly Masterson, story by Bong Joon-ho based on Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette
Cast: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 5/13/14
Opens: June 27, 2014
One of Pete Seeger’s favorite protest songs dealt with the sinking of the Titanic, the key words being “When that ship left England, it was making for the shore/ The rich refused to associate with the poor/ So they left the poor below, they were the first to go/ It was sad when the great ship went down.” The late Mr. Seeger, a Marxist banjo player, chafed at the idea of rigid social classes. Doubtless he would be offended by the decision of the skipper of a train, the Snowpiercer, who, after the world freezes over thanks to climate change, saved about a thousand people. But: he believed that there is an established order to things and that every society must have distinct social classes. Not that skipper Wilford (Ed Harris), an eccentric billionaire whose ideas were scoffed at, needed money from the sale of first-class tickets, nor would money do him any good on this train. The Snowpiercer was destined to carry its large crew around the world again and again just like Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, except that the vehicle is a train and, as we engage with the movie, the tail of the train is filled with the Dickensian down-and-out, full of mud and without showers for eighteen years (whether they needed them or not). The front of the train, which had never been seen by the folks in steerage, was blocked off by a series of gates, the poor guarded by soldiers in typical army uniforms and some, later on, with black hoods over their heads.
“Snowpiercer” is an obvious choice for director Bong Joon-ho, who shares writing credits with Kelly Masterson, adapting the script from Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochettte’s French graphic novel Transperceneige. Bong, whose Korean answer to the Japanese “Godzilla” was a monster (“The Host” or “Gwoemul”) that emerged from the Han river, devastating Seoul, now uses the train as an iron monster but one determined to keep alive a crew as a microcosm for society, executing some when a proportional balance got tipped. After eighteen years, down-and-out would-be leader Curtis Everette together with his sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell) and with the advice of Gilliam (John Hurt), is to launch a full-scale rebellion, the ultimate aim being to overthrow the rule of the still unseen billionaire. To get through the gates would require the massacre of all soldiers guarding the fort, the men-in-arms beholden to Wilford’s idea of social-class balance.
That’s the narrative, such as it is, but as in many a sci-fi adventure, plot takes second place to cinematography and visual magic. The effects in “Snowpiercer” are thrilling, the movie a visual stunner that in no way should be seen on a mere 80-inch TV screen. Even more amazing is the fact that most of it could be filmed on the sound stages of the Barrandov Studios in Prague (see my commentary on the Barrandov here):
Though Chris Evans in the role of the rebel leader is made for pictures like “Captain America,” he is no great actor but he has what it took to give visceral resonance to this globe-spanning vehicle. Some of the action scenes are downright impressionistic, as the rebels go after the men with axes and later with hooded men with night goggles who seem to have the upper hand when the train heads through a long, dark tunnel. As the rebs move closer to the seat of power and first-class passengers are seen dancing and having a ball despite being closed in for eighteen years, photographer Kyung-Pyo Hong opens up the lens, monochromatics giving way to vivid color.
Comic scenes abound, particularly those with an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton as Mason, who is Wilford’s chief propagandist and repeatedly tells us that society must remain stratified by predestination. Alison Pill as Teacher serves as Wilford’s chief educator, rousing the brainwashed kids in her class to cheer her boss. Ed Harris as Wilford is spot-on as the laid-back, steak-and-potatoes eating head of the train, orchestrating everything that goes on in his micro-society, while Octavia Spencer (“The Help”) prepares to do whatever it takes to get back her kidnapped youngsters. Song Kang-ho takes an active role as Namgoong Minsu, who tolerates the years of train-riding by zonking out on a drug available on the train.
Let’s hope that Florida’s Republican Senator Marco Rubio, sucking up to his followers in the Tea Party, is right when he denies global climate change. But anyone with a brain must dimiss this irrational optimism. Remember the slogan that concluded the movie “On the Beach?” “There’s still time, brother.”
Rated R. 126 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – A
Overall – B+