Movies don’t get much more multinational than melting-potpourri Snowpiercer—an adaptation of a French graphic novel shot in a Czech studio by a South Korean director, starring mostly Americans, Englishmen and a Scotswoman. But the reigning sensibility is director Joon-ho Bong’s. He’s the force behind The Host (2006), which rejigged the mutated-monster movie, and neo-Hitchcockian masterpiece Mother (2009), which he vaulted into an operatic art-film-fulness.
Snowpiercer’s a different beast altogether, given to snarling fits of action, poetic ponderings and idiosyncratic rumblings. This is no action-thriller but a dystopian, steampunky class parable for a world careening towards environmental disaster … as if Delicatessen-era Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Wes Anderson got together to obsess over Marx, The World Without Us, James Bond train sequences and the hallway fight from Oldboy (whose director, Chan-wook Park, co-produced this). And that still can’t describe the ambition, propulsion and character flourishes that Bong engineers, keeping his and co-writer Kelly Masterson’s bullet-train of a film (adapted from Le Transperceneige) on the narrow track between one long, howling chasm of B-movie ridiculousness and the expansive, barren wastes of action formula.
The conceit’s bizarro: a mass artificial-cooling project, meant to halt global warming, backfires, deep-freezing so much that, by 2031, the “rattling ark” of a train carries all remaining people through frozen wilds the world over. Chris Everett (Chris Evans) remains determined to get to the front and kill the inventor and driver, Wilford (a coolly lordly Ed Harris), running his locomotive round the whitened world in year-long circuits. In a story with curious British undertones, this train’s almost as much a quaint inversion of the locked-room mystery (what’s in each car and who’s Wilford, really?) as it is a rattling analogy for social hierarchy (“sticking to one’s station”).
The downtrodden, unwashed masses get protein bars daily and huddle in the back (reminiscent of the Nazis’ cattle cars heading to the death-camps; a tale of group survival in this “tail section” echoes the horrors of Leningrad under siege in WWII). Above some remarkable character acting—a wild-haired, strangely Jesus-like father (Ewen Bremner); a seemingly addicted, nihilistic convict (Kang-ho Song)—Tilda Swinton rises supreme as the bespectacled, toothy, Thatcher-like, Northern England schoolmarm-ish Minister Mason, spouting decrees and her refrain, “So it is.”
And so the film goes, jarring or lulling or tilting or gloriously gonzo. There’s the surreal ridiculousness of wealth epitomized by a sushi bar surrounded by an aquarium as frostscapes whiz past outside. Or a sudden pause in bloodletting to observe another “Happy New Year!” as the train rushes over the Yekaterina Bridge. Indoctrination reaches a fever-dream pitch in a classroom. Life (and main characters)? Dirt-cheap in this “blockbuster production” that Everett may be merely playing a role in. The fights are few and far-between (though not without much spatter and some jolting camerawork), with much time spent wondering about the point of all this struggle. Leadership, it seems, means control and reducing people to parts in a blood-and-tears-oiled, body-churning system. But in its final moments, Snowpiercer shakes off cynicism for a glimpse of primal beauty—and it’s a last-minute revelation easy to believe in, after Bong’s sublimated comic-book concepts into such wild wonders.
Fri, Aug 8 – Fri, Aug 15
Directed by Joon-ho Bong
Metro Cinema at the Garneau