I am a hat, you are a shoe. I belong on the head, you belong on the foot. Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe.
by Thom Yee
One summer movie you probably didn’t see or even contemplate over the last few months is Snowpiercer. For its North American theatrical release, the film opened in a grand total of eight locations, followed by a slightly wider release to 150 mostly art house theatres the next week, and straight to video-on-demand services the week after that. All of which suggests a real piece of crap, but It’s also a piece that broke box office records in South Korea during its initial release in the summer of 2013, and has gone on to earn $100 million worldwide. A sci-fi actioner starring Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton and John Hurt — in what’s kind of an odd mirroring of Only Lovers Left Alive, another art house movie I reviewed recently, only swap out Captain America for Loki — you might ask what happened given its overseas pedigree and potential mainstream appeal. Surely if there had been any concerted effort at all to market the movie, some people would have seen it. Perhaps so, but as with all things that sound stupid in show business, the answer comes down to yet more Hollywood Upstairs Accounting.
By now we should all know that an American film needs to more than double its budget in its opening North American release window to break even and that nearly all overseas revenues are absorbed by overseas interests. Combine that with the many back-end point deals going to several factions of the creators, ballooning marketing budgets, creative accounting practices, and the need to make money right now, and you have an increasingly unhealthy market no matter how much you spend on popcorn or what premiums you’re charged on 3D showings. Given the apparent need to shorten the 90-day minimum between theatrical and home release in maintaining property visibility, movies like Snowpiercer — identified to be without the obvious, bloated markers of banality needed for mainstream success — stand a better chance at maximizing revenue through alternative distrubution methods. Which is all a long-winded way of saying that when movie execs don’t like the movies they bought, they forgo the opportunity cost of trying.
As for Snowpiercer itself, the film also mirrors yet another sci-fi action movie from this past summer, Edge of Tomorrow, in that it’s also based on a foreign comicbook, Le Transperceneige, a French graphic novel. So is Snowpiercer proof that comicbook movies don’t have to have superheroes, high-flying action and simplistic themes? Or is it actually society’s dismissive, judge-everything-based-only-on-its-surface nature that keeps it from ever really understanding anything?
In a desolate future, a new ice age has extinguished almost all life on Earth after mankind’s attempts to counteract global warming (which is a myth anyway, why else would it be snowing in Calgary and Edmonton in September [i.e., it’s cold here = global warming is a sham]?). The last human survivors live aboard the Snowpiercer, a supertrain, circling the globe in perpetual motion, where the elites of our remaining society live at the front in comfort and opulence and the poor inhabit the tail in squalor and disrepair. Preparing for the latest in a series of rebellions, Curtis (Chris Evans) and his group of not-so-merry poor believe they finally have the weapon they need to force their way up the train: the location of the mysterious [and Korean] Namgoong Minsu, the man who designed the Snowpiercer’s security systems.
That’s kind of a weird premise, and it’s easy to pick the movie apart at a conceptual level, like why the train needs to keep moving, how could perpetual motion be achieved, or why society, even in this reduced states, needs to be split up into extremes of have and have not. It’s up to you whether you can get past the foundational concepts of the movie and see them for their obvious allegorical properties, but I wouldn’t blame you if that concept alone was enough to turn you off. Compared to clearer, shinier ideas like Legos come to life or mutant turtle teens who are also ninjas, Snowpiercer is intriguing, but it’s certainly not mainstream. I mean, it’s not like Chris Evans ever takes his shirt off [nor does Tilda Swinton].
In terms of action, Snowpiercer’s errs far more on the side of practical effects than CGI trickery. By and large it’s a movie that probably won’t get your pulse racing the same way that watching super-soldier Steve Rogers fighting a nigh-unstoppable Winter Soldier would. These are, after all, largely malnourished people who’ve lived in cramped quarters on a train fighting other people on a train, still in cramped, close quarters. While the scope of the action is limited, director Bong Joon-ho brings an inventive, just slightly off-kilter approach, whether it’s a scene as large as two characters shooting at each other from opposite ends of the train or as small as a bad guy dying by the sword. If nothing else, it’s a movie that’ll make you say “neat”, which is a hell of a lot more than I can say for the more labourious action movie entries of this past summer. Though Snowpiercer can be properly called an action movie, the action doesn’t dominate the movie so much as it reflects the bleak conditions aboard the train and reinforces the movies themes.
Thematically, the movie hangs together as an obvious parable for society. One of the most questionable aspects of the film is why the train has to keep moving at all. Going beyond the basic premise of perpetual motion, the value of a train that’s always moving is less literal as it is a reflection for society. It’s not a question of why the train keeps moving so much as what is served by its constant movement and what is necessary to keep things going. As a group, large or small, social strafication is a natural byproduct of splitting people up. Whether it’s a long-standing, Machiavellian class structure or the simple structure of different departments in a large store, divisions always cause rivalries, particularly given that there are almost always quantifiable metrics to validate certain segments over others. To a large extent, that’s to be expected, but taken to its extreme, as in dystopic futures, it leads to the less palletable (but generally secretive) extremes we find when what’s really keeping the train going is finally revealed.
I’ve said it before, I’ve said it recently, and I’ll say it now: If I ever find myself in any sort of post-apocalypse situation where the survivors would envy the dead, I’m going to give up right away. Motorcycle gangs scavenging and terrorizing after global energy shortages? Zombies everywhere with the few remaining survivors forming morally bankrupt (and possibly cannibalistic) societies? World freezing over and a perpetual-motion train with limited resources is the only refuge? No thank you to all of that. That’s probably a perspective fed more by growing up middle class in a Western culture and knowledge of dystopian story tropes as it is by any survival instinct I may or may not have, but I think it remains fundamentally true to the way a lot of people think. There are segments of society practically begging for an anarchic breakdown of everything that keeps us safe, but for most of us, we can’t even imagine what it’s like to try to go to sleep without window blinds or our favourite winter quilt let alone in the dirt or on steel grates in the same clothes we’ve been wearing for the last week while fleeing whatever new terror has broken its way into our lives. Interstingly, Snowpiercer in many ways mirrors that attitude.
What’s weird about Snowpiercer is that the writers sort of agree with that sentiment. Eventually our heroes do make their way to the final train car, a solitary, sterile engine room with only a hint of the opulence we’d discovered in previous cars, less because the head is lacking resources so much as it’s above such frivolities. Revelations abound as we find out the real game being played all throughout the film, and as we’re led to what’s perhaps a more virtuous conclusion for the story, we also reach a catostrophic ending. Whether or not that’s what you see in the movie’s conclusion is up to you, but I see it as a validation of what’s perhaps the fatalistic attitude I’ve outlined above and what we should be thinking about ourselves as a people.
We are all stuck inside this blasted train. We are all prisoners in this hunk of metal.
I don’t think Snowpiercer will be anyone’s favourite 2014 summer movie, and it’s certainly not mine, but it’s a movie that will make you feel what its characters are feeling and should make you think. It’s a little full of itself in that same way the rest of the Matrix movies marvelled at their own cleverness, but it’s also got some of the fun and invention that the best parts of those movies also had. It works if you take it seriously… and it even kind of works if you don’t.
Snowpiercer final score: 7.5
On the Edge
-“I know what people taste like. I know that babies taste best.”