Review: Snowpiercer


Snowpiercer has been among my most anticipated films for the past several years. Every time we did a preview of what’s upcoming, Snowpiercer has been on there in some capacity. When it got its Korean release last year, I was convinced a US release was imminent. I mean, it stars Captain America! How could it possibly be delayed?

But, of course, it was. The Weinstein Company took on distribution rights, but they wanted to cut it and Bong Joon-Ho refused to let them do so. So now the release is finally upon us, the full film as it was intended, but only a limited release.

I’m still annoyed at The Weinstein Company for trying to mess with the film in the first place… but I have to admit that I kind of understand why.

Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer (2013) Final Korean Trailer - Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Kang-ho Song

Director: Bong Joon-Ho
Release Date: June 27, 2014 (Limited)
Country: South Korea/USA 

Snowpiercer bears little resemblance to the graphic novels that inspired it. In Le Transperceneige, humanity has been wiped out and the only survivors live on a class-segregated train that travels around and around the globe. It is also the story of one man going from the back section of the train to the front.

Nothing else is the same.

In just a few days, Snowpiercer‘s timeline will be outdated. Over a black screen (and credits), audio tells the story of a world ruined by global warming. On July 1st, 2014, an attempt is made to stop it by spraying chemicals into the air. As could be expected, this backfires horribly and plunges the world into an eternal winter, one that kills all but a few hundred train passengers. It was months from the Korean release, but it still seems odd to put the date so close to the present.

But the film takes place in 2031, seventeen years after the world has been destroyed. And though the train is radically unequal, it has a system. In the front are the aristocrats, the wealthy who had reservations for the train when everything went wrong. In the tail section are the rest:freeloaders who came in at the last moment. They bunk in disgusting, cramped quarters and subsist on gelatinous protein blocks brought in by gun-toting soldiers each day.

Snowpiercer is weird

Curtis (Chris Evans) is a denizen of the tail, and he’s sick of the oppression. He wants to start a revolution and take back the train. Others have tried and failed, but he believes that he has a way to get right up to the front, to be face to face with the train’s creator and overlord, Wilford. Wilford never goes to the tail, rather sending lackies such as Mason (the amazing Tilda Swinton) to deal with anything of importance for him. Curtis intends to change that, and he will kill anyone who tries to stop him. Which means he kills a lot of people. Curtis and his ragtag bunch are met with violent resistance every step of the way, and it leads to some pretty amazing fight scenes, both from a choreography standpoint and an artistic one. You haven’t seen many large-scale battles that look this good.

In fact, pretty much everything in the train looks good. The first names to show up after Bong Joon Ho’s in the opening credits all relate to the film’s look: the Hair & Makeup Artist, the Costume Designer, and then the Production Designer. It’s appropriate, because the most immediately striking thing about the film is just how realized the setting is. 

Tilda Swinton

Unfortunately, the effect is lost the moment anybody looks out the window. While I wouldn’t say that the exterior CGI is “amateur,” I would say that it’s much more 2004 than 2014. I could never get lost in the frozen tundra because it never felt real. The actors were able to convincingly sell that they were looking out at a world instead of a green screen, but I couldn’t see what they appeared to be seeing. Instead, I saw shoddy effects. A year before Snowpiercer, Chris Evans was in The Avengers, which has some of the most amazing CG ever. That film set the bar for a digitally recreated world, and while Snowpiercer‘s budget was problem blown on a single street of The Avengers‘ digitally recreated Manhattan, it’s hard to accept such low-quality visuals from a modern day production. I’m not even really kidding about the 2004 thing. The snowy world doesn’t look all that much better than the animated adaptation of Chris Van Alsburg’s The Polar Express. That’s just not acceptable.

It seems that the design team knew that the CG wouldn’t be great, because many of the train cars simply don’t have windows. They could have had windows, but they didn’t. This problem goes from irritating to outright unacceptable during what is easily the worst scene in the entire film, a completely ridiculous battle that takes place as the train rounds a circle. It’s a moment that does nothing to benefit the film and everything to hurt it. With that simple scene, Bong Joon-Ho took a bizarre-yet-serious world and turned it into a goddamn cartoon (with the shoddy animation to match).

And that cartoonishness sadly leaks into other parts of Snowpiercer‘s narrative. For much of the first chunk of the film, even when it’s sorta-funny, it’s unquestionably dark. But for some reason it occurs to me that maybe this is some sort of twisted comedy. But that makes no sense, because all of the absurdity feels oddly realistic. It seems like a bizarrely over-the-top drama that has comedy elements but isn’t really supposed to be funny… but I don’t know. At some point, the tone begins to change, and then again and again. And when it happens, it’s… off-putting. If I had to guess, it’s some of these moments that Weinstein wanted to cut. While the action (that single scene excepted) is pretty consistent, everything around it is like a ping pong ball. Sometimes it’s sad, others it’s funny and lighthearted and completely crazy. I’m not sure how I respond to it, and I like that kind of thing. I can just imagine Harvey Weinstein sitting in his chair thinking, “What the hell did I buy?”

Damn this movie's weird

Sure, it’s a film about a future where the last of humanity lives on a train that will theoretically last forever, and there are all kinds of ridiculous characters on board, but none of that feels crazy. It just sounds crazy. 

Which brings up an interesting point: How did this movie even get made? Snowpiercer is exactly the sort of risk that you would think anybody with money would never take. Even the cast (the aforementioned Evans and Swinton, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, and more) seems like even more of a risk rather than less, especially since it’s bi-lingual. Song Kang-Ho is the only person in the film who I really could have imagined in that part. Of all the English-language debuts by Korean directors, this one was always the oddest, and the final product is just that: odd

Once things start to pick up, the film goes from “This is completely incredible!” to “What the actual fuck?” constantly. For every brilliant decision there is one that I can’t fathom the logic behind. Maybe it made sense at the time, but in retrospect it sure as hell doesn’t. And that’s a shame, because in the beginning I loved it, and I wanted to continue loving it. I mean, I was so excited for this film for so freaking long that anything less than perfection was going to be a disappointment, but I’m not even disappointed by Snowpiercer; I’m just confused.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it.