Bong Joon-Ho’s much awaited film is finally here. There was talk that it was going to be cut down for audiences, and thankfully that has not happened. Admittedly I’ve only ever seen one of Joon-Ho’s movies and that’s his monster movie The Host, one of the best monster flicks I’ve ever seen. The premise here is quite simple. To control global warming, ecologists send a gas into the air and it backfires and freezes all of earth. Everything is extinct except for a few hundred people on a giant train called the Snowpiercer. The train makes loops around the world and its inhabitants are divided by classes. Obvious political and social commentary looms all over this, but Joon-Ho cinematic storytelling gives it a strong pathos. There’s first class, middle class, workers, rich snobs, warriors, and Wilford, a mysterious man that runs the train like he’s Madman of Oz. Welcome to Snowpiercer! It’s a microcosm of not only society, but humanity since civilization began.
Chris Evans plays our hero, Curtis. He leads the lower class in the back of the train in a revolution. Every new car they go through has new surprises. It’s like a video game where new enemies and bosses can be found. Joon-ho takes this rather basic premise and revolution story but injects a bizarre and fascinating fluid energy into its veins. The content is the stuff of B sci fi but he elevates it into enthralling cinema.
It shifts gears between scares, thrills, and visualizes intellectual ideas about civilization. Imagine putting Bioshock the video game, The Wizard of Oz, and The Truman Show in a blender; that’s what this film is. Each new train car reveals more about society, humanity’s base instincts and what’s really going on here. This slow reveal of information, told through heightened action, provides an engaging experience for the simple plotting and social commentary. The thematic content is nothing new and neither is the revolution story, but Joon-Ho smartly is more interested in flexing his aesthetic and tonal muscles.
In such a limited space he utilizes multiple aspects of filmmaking to build upon his themes. His camera movement and spatial recognition communicates his ideas about the primal instincts of man . He jumps from long static shots to slow motion fight sequences to shaky camera fights with intent — something you don’t often see in action cinema — although Godzilla was a rare example of someone legitimately pulling of Spielberg’s mastery of the camera.
The lighting and color palettes change as the group moves up each car train. You’re traveling through the history of civilization and each train represents a different leap in civilization. An impressive sequence early on follows a torch being moved up the trains until it’s finally used to allow them to take another leap up the train (perhaps a nod to 2001?). If I have a major critique, it’s that the lack of physical conflict in the later trains aren’t replaced, and leave the film with a thematic void until the finale.
Other things that hold it back are the shifting tones. There’s a ton of Korean and Western influence merged here. It’s a bit like a Tarantino movie but I don’t know that Joon-Ho manages to grasp the latter, which is felt in the films simplistic (tho interesting) thematic core and on a character level.
As the movie jumps to new sections it feels like another homage to something. Maybe I was just too aware of the influences at times, but even so, the homages are executed well. The dialogue is odd at times; it doesn’t feel natural. The script was translated into english and some things just don’t work.
Evans is a solid lead here and Tilda Swinton as the henchmen like villain is super entertaining to watch. She recognizes the bizarre tone that Joon-Ho is aiming for and hams it up. It’s glorious! I wish everyone had found a niche as entertaining as hers.
Bong Joon-Ho has created a dazzling visual feast taking place in a limited space. His content is familiar with heavy handed metaphors and there are giant leaps in logic at points, but on an aesthetic and visual storytelling he’s created a film that has more personality than any of the blockbusters this year so far.
It’s a small look at civilization over time and our evolution. From simple caveman-like beginnings to warfare, the industrial revolution, education, capitalism, luxury, then hedonism, excessive lifestyle and finally demise. Every once in a while the camera gives us an aerial shot of the train. Inside that train are humans fighting, climbing social ladders, politicking, and dying while the outside world is untouched and doesn’t care about these petty little human issues. It’s fascinating to watch, and I literally mean “watch.” The flaws of this are outweighed by Joon-Ho’s technical strength, and besides Godzilla, I can’t imagine there will be many summer blockbusters that match this film on a visual storytelling level. If you liked this film, I highly suggest The Host (2006) so you can see what Joon-Ho is like when he’s firing on all cylinders.