DIRECTED BY: Joon-ho Bong
PLOT: The film takes place eighteen years after a global extinction event has plunged the world into a new ice age. The only survivors are those who managed to board the Snowpiercer, an enormous self powered train that now continually loops around the Earth on a journey with no end or purpose, in time. There is a class system, working from the front to the back, in place to keep social order. But dissent brews amongst the passengers between the haves in the front and the have-nots by the caboose.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s the weirdness, which goes beyond the central science fiction conceit, that actually makes the film unravel. Following an extremely tight and gripping first hour, it’s as if Bong is unsure where to take his film, so he halfheartedly offers a series of Terry Gilliam-esque impersonations set against increasingly flawed narrative logic. These slips distance and distract the viewer from what could have been an excellent addition to the canon of “great science fiction movies” (a list which in and of itself is a long way away from being 366 movies long).
COMMENTS: Joon-ho Bong’s first English language film generated a lot of buzz in Europe following its popular reception in his home country of South Korea. An ongoing argument between director and the stateside distributor (The Weinstein Company, as usual) over subtitled scenes not being cut means that the film may be sinking without much of a trace in the U.S.A., however, which seems a shame given Bong’s track record. The director of The Host and a segment of Tokyo!, amongst others, Bong is a director with good work to his credit. Snowpiercer, however, doesn’t stand up to critical attention. Without giving anything away, the opening section sets a very tense situation of confined spaces that are a certain class of people’s entire universe. Tired of the same food and the lack of windows, a revolution takes place with the intention of getting to the front of the train, and from here on in the film moves at a breakneck pace which is both tense and exhilarating. Particular kudos must go to Tilda Swinton, who is unrecognizable as a character based on Great Britain’s iconic Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher, and is a scene-stealer during her underused screen time. The film works as a high octane action movie, and it works in this manner for quite a while; but as the lower classes gain access to new carriages the dynamic of the film changes for the worse.
Snowpiercer‘s overall fault is that its enormous plot holes are impossible to forgive against its pretensions of an intelligent subtext and analysis of modern class issues. Entertainment-driven popcorn viewing that makes up the mainstay of the Hollywood summer slate can be forgiven for saying things badly, given that it has so little to say; but Snowpiercer has a brilliant central plot device, yet Bong and his co-writer Kelly Masterton’s increasingly obscure and irrational narrative comes across as a desperate distraction to take the viewers’ minds off the fact that the writer and director have no clue of where their film needs to go.
Ultimately, despite being a lot of fun at certain points, and certainly being considerably more cerebral than a most Hollywood action films can boast to be, Snowpiercer is a noble failure. More irrational than weird, and with an allegorical political subtext that doesn’t bear close scrutiny from either the left or the right, Bong’s English language debut disappoints, despite the praise being heaped upon it.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…very good, unforgettably bizarre, original filmmaking and adventurously explored ideas can leave you feeling high, especially when you don’t know quite how it’s been pulled off.”–Wesley Morris, Grantland (contemporaneous)