RogerBW's Blog

Snowpiercer 06 July 2014

2013, dir. Bong Joon-ho, Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton IMDb / allmovie

After the world has frozen, all that's left of humanity lives aboard a train eternally circling the planet.

It's clear from the start that this isn't a film about the technical worldbuilding. The world is cold enough to kill everyone who didn't make it on board the self-powered train, but the tracks never get seriously blocked or damaged. (The film's based on a graphic novel series, Le Transperceneige, that began in 1982, but takes only the most general elements from it.)

So when the revolution starts among the downtrodden folk in Last Class, and as they fight their way forward they meet a car full of menacing guys in coveralls and balaclavas who douse their axes in fish blood before they go into a fight… well, "be careful" is about all one can say, really. This isn't so much a constructed world as a construct into which the author's neat ideas can be slotted. It's a fable.

It's clearly meant to be a symbolic tale about class struggle, but unfortunately it only works on that level; the actuality presented on the screen is so barking and bizarre that one can only parse it as symbolic. Otherwise there are too many things that would cause one to stop and shake one's head. Tilda Swinton's playing in a sub-Wallace and Gromit broad northern accent? Sure, why not? The bodies of people who jumped out of the train fifteen years ago and froze to death are still visible even though there's blowing snow everywhere? Yeah, of course they are. The engine really runs on… yes. Yes, it really does. What else could it have been?

The ageing name actors here, Tilda Swinton and John Hurt and Ed Harris, do a great job with what the script allows them; everyone else is clearly not up to their level.

There's a lot of fighting, as one might expect. But it's moody impressionistic fighting, not the quick cut, shaky cam, CGI extravaganza that one expects from most modern action films; this was made for about $40 million in the Czech Republic, rather than the ten or twenty times as much it would have cost to make it in Hollywood, and the budget almost all went into the excellent sets rather than trying to fool us into accepting computer graphics as people.

There are also the interesting bits between the fights: not just the Nightclub Car and the Drug Den Car and the Catwalk Over Grindy Machinery Car, which one might expect from this sort of thing, but also the Hair Salon Car, the Aquarium Car and the School Car.

Yeah, it's all pretty predictable. Class warfare? The alternatives the film claims we end up with are that everyone lives in his own appointed place in society, or nearly everyone dies: there is no middle course.

In the end this is a spectacle with just enough story to hold it together. It's pretty, and it's perverse, and some people will look at it and call it a masterpiece of subtlety just because it's partly in Foreign. Overall I enjoyed it on the spectacle level, but I certainly don't think it's the masterpiece some critics are claiming. I suspect it'll be too arty for the blockbuster crowd and too blockbustery for people who wanted an art film. Which is a shame, because to be honest I'd be happy to see more films made in this style.

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