Saturday, July 19, 2014

Snowpiercer (2014)

Directed by: Joon-Ho Bong
Runtime: 126 Minutes
Google Play, Amazon Instant

First of all, I should say, the story was based on a French graphic novel called, "La Transperceneige." So if you watch the film and think to yourself that it's got a bit of a live action anime flair to it, you aren't too far off.

Granted the only films from Bong Joon Ho I've seen are The Host (2006) and Snowpiercer (2014), but with these two films I'd say he has a knack for converting issues of the day into thrilling, dystopian fiction on screen.

The issue this time around: global warming.  The fix: releasing a cooling agent called CW7 into the atmosphere in order to bring the planet's temperature down. Of course, this works a little too well, and freezes the planet killing a vast majority of life on earth.  Making it uninhabitable.  Those who survived did so by taking refuge on a futuristic train immune to the icy conditions.

It doesn't take long into the film for it to be strikingly apparent that this tale is as much metaphor as it is dystopian future fiction.  The train is a microcosm of society, a breaking down of the human condition, a walkthrough of class and hierarchy, a thought provoking reflection of human paradigms.

The film follows reluctant leader Curtis (Chris Evans) and a group of freedom fighters (made up of Edgar (Jamie Bell), Tanya (Octavia Spencer), Namgoong (Kang-ho Song) and his daughter Yona (Ah Sung Ko) as they battle their way out of their low class, poor conditioned foot of the train to the high society, ruling class that is the head of the train in an attempt to seize control of the engine.

Society and their circumstances are slowly revealed throughout the film as the group passes from one train car to another.  It's an opportunity for creative variety in set design, while serving essentially as a literal walk through the social classes of humanity.

During the main battle sequence, the two opposing forces meet in the middle of the train just as it's passing the Yekaterina Bridge.  Passing the bridge is how they count the years. It travels all around the globe in one year's time.

The passing of the bridge marks new years, and everyone stops mid-fight to say happy new year, while bracing for impact against ice covered portions of the rail.  It's here we learn that the front of the train is capable of smashing its way through these ice buildup/barriers on the rails and converting that ice into drinkable water.

The battle resumes as they pass into a dark tunnel. The film has many intense moments scattered throughout the film, but this sequence is one of its finest.  It's an achievement that Bong Joon Ho was able to vary his set pieces and action sequences so much given the cramped nature of their environment. The variety keeps things interesting throughout the film.

By the time we've been told how they get their water we start to wonder how they get their food as well.  That's answered shortly thereafter as the group passes through a greenhouse car where they grow fruits, vegetables and plants of all sorts.

Then we see an aquarium car with a vast amount of sea creatures swimming overhead.
Chicken anyone?
We also see a freezer car housing their meat (although the lack of a car where we see any wildlife, and the question of how they would have fed and maintained such wildlife had they had it has been cause for controversy among some viewers).

Not surprisingly, propaganda is taught in schools...

Eventually they progress to the student's educational car where we learn how this train came to be.  The video that plays, and the teacher's lectures are all propaganda that forces children to "know" from an early age that if anyone left the train they would freeze to death. It also brainwashes them to love Wilford the creator of the train.

Wilford acted as a sort of Noah building a train that could travel the entire globe and sustain life even during this frozen post apocalyptic future.

They mocked him for making it so large and so fully sustainable, but now, obviously, humanity was dependent upon it, much the way Noah's story went.  So on top of all the other metaphors going on here we are given a biblical reference as well.

The story, based on the aforementioned graphic novel, seems well thought out (although there are some who would argue more explanation was needed for certain parts), there is quite a bit of intriguing backstory that unfolds throughout the journey.  These bits and pieces of story revealing are well spaced out enough that we feel like we're discovering them naturally as the story progresses instead of all at once, and yet only once did I feel like it broke the pacing of the film.

Anyone who has seen Bong Joon Ho's The Host (2006) will recognize these two Korean actors.
The film is well acted from its large cast of recognizable faces (some of whom I've already mentioned).  Its also, a testament to Bong Joon Ho's ability as a director to stage inventive, thrilling and even brutal action sequences.  The challenge is to achieve all of this on a train, and still have the train be somewhat believable.  While it might be a stretch for some, I'm willing to say I think he pulled it off.  It is based off a graphic novel afterall, the last few films like that I've seen had far more outlandish things happening that most people were also willing to accept.

You might have difficulty seeing this film in theaters unfortunately.  It seems the director and Harvey Weinstein (the distributor of the film) have not agreed on the film's running time.  Bong Joon Ho, as he should, held his ground asserting his creative control over the project, and as a result Mr. Weinstein has seen fit to limit the film's release.  So while it may never come to a theater near you, you can catch it by way of digital streaming from Google Play or Amazon Instant.  It may not be as good as seeing it in theaters, but it will cost you a bit less and you'll get to stay within the comfort of your own home.

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