By: Steven Johnston
Bong Joon-Ho’s first English Language film, Snowpiercer, wasn’t reviewed by The Void Zone this year, but it wasn’t too long ago that we reviewed his 2006 Korean film, The Host, and recommended it. That, combined with the fact that Snowpiercer has made so many critics’ best lists already, I felt compelled to seek it out.
Snowpiercer depicts a post-apocalyptic world where a last ditch attempt to reverse the effects of global warming has led to a new Ice Age, and all surviving life on Earth has boarded a train which travels all the known railroads of Earth at great speed. This train was invented by the enigmatic, Social Darwinism spouting, billionaire industrialist known as Wilford (Ed Harris). He lives at the head of the train, and tends the engine. The rich passengers live lavishly at the front of the train, and the very poor live at the back of the train in poverty and squalor, and where many of the oldest passengers are amputees. No matter what your station, the powers that be, personified by Tilda Swinton’s Mason, use the cult of personality surrounding Wilford and the religious belief in the power of his engine to make sure that everyone stays in their place. After all, a shoe will never be fit to be a hat.
Enter Chris Evans’ Curtis who, along with his young assistant Edgar (Jaimie Bell), and his aged amputee mentor (John Hurt), embarks on a revolution to spring a security expert (Song Kang-ho) from the jail car, and fight their way to the front of the train to instill a new order.
Curtis has been described in other sources as a reluctant revolutionary. I disagree. Evans plays Curtis as a man of action, easily sliding into the role of the leader, but afraid of how far he might go. As he and his companions fight their way through the different cars of the train, and the level of violence and sacrifice increases, he reveals levels of regret, fear, and guilt which only become clear in the movie’s final act. It’s a 180 degree turn (within the action genre) from Evans’ Captain America role, where he plays a melancholy and sure-footed relic of a bygone era. It’s a great performance. In fact, the performances, staging, set and art direction, and cinematography are impeccable, but they are all in service of a by the numbers dystopian action thriller that lacks punch.
The characters are constantly moving from left to right along the length of the train. The plot of the movie doesn’t require the characters to actually solve any mysteries, uncover any truths, or even do anything more interesting than race to the front of the train, hacking and slashing their way forward until whatever of their number is left confronts Ed Harris who congratulates them on their grit and spunk, and spouts dialogue that wasn’t original when the Emperor was spouting it at the end of Return of the Jedi thirty years ago (again, this is not a problem with Harris, but the lines he’s given).
It’s a good movie, far better than average, but for me, it lacked the emotional resonance of other actioners this year like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, or X-Men: Days of Future Past. It should also be noted that those movies all turn on the protagonists’ decisions to eschew violence or vengeance, whereas Snowpiercer’s characters can only solve their problems by punching, hacking, shooting, or exploding their enemies. In a summer that has seen so many heroes question whether simply pummeling one more person will solve their problems, it’s ironic that so many critics have embraced as one of the best movies of the year, a film that argues for beating down your enemies – even if the ultimate product is worthy of a recommendation.