Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Snowpiercer (15) | Film Review

Snowpiercer, dir. Bong Joon-ho, scr. Bong Joon-ho, Kelly Masterson, based on Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand & Jean-Marc Rochette, st. Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Go Ah-sung, Jamie Bell, Alison Pill, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Luke Pasqualino, Ewan Bremner, Ed Harris

In the future, after an attempt to reverse the effects of global warming by injecting coolant into our atmosphere has gone badly wrong resulting in an another ice age, the rag-tag remnants of humanity hurtle around a globe-spanning track upon the Snowpiercer, a perpetual-motion-engined locomotive that houses the dregs of mankind in the tail, while the elite live it up towards the front. Historically, no one has done class division like sci-fi, although these days, with the gap between our richest and poorest at an all time high, one wonders whether a 21st Century-set contemporary drama might serve just as well without the need for high-concept analogy. Bong Joon-ho's film, made by Park Chan-wook's production company Moho Films, was almost hacked Blade Runner-style in late 2012 by distributor Harvey Weinstein when it emerged that he planned on snipping 20 minutes from the 2-hour cut and adding fore and aft voiceovers - presumably in order to make the picture more palatable for movie-going audiences that have a hard time with tricksy things like plot and character - but in the end, a compromise was reached and the film opens in the US (but with no UK release date as of yet) in June, and uncut.

It's a curious decision on the part of Weinstein, as Snowpiercer is no more wooly or ponderous as, say, Neill Blomkamp's Elysium which weaves a similar allegorical tale of proletariat oppression by the wealthy upper classes, and the film - Bong Joon-ho's first English-language feature - in no way suffers from the potential East/West clash of style and technique that might render the movie impenetrable to English speaking audiences. It all smacks very heavily of a kind of pre-emptive irrational fear of foreign-language directors' vision for Westerners, of the sort that does a great disservice to the intelligence of cinemagoers, and further arouses suspicion that distributors put financial return above the expansion of artistry.

But politics aside, Snowpiercer is a sprawling and visually glorious tale that's equal parts Jean-Pierre Jeunet, George Orwell, and L. Frank Baum, with echoes of the Wachowski's Cloud Atlas and Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys for good measure. The plot, singular and drivingly kinetic for such an environment as a train, where the only possible momentum is linearly forward, has Evans as Curtis, the unlikely leader of the tail-end resistance, a motley gang of disheveled and disenfranchised who are kept in concentration-camp squalor and provided for with jellied protein bars. With the help of a host of universal archetypes - the sage Gilliam (geddit?) (Hurt), the plucky youngster Edgar (Bell), the silent muscle Grey (Skins' Pasqualino), and tech-wiz Namgoong (Kang-ho), they mount a revolt, slowly making their way through the carriages, witnessing with increasing wonder and resentment the level of opulence offered to the other passengers at their expense, hoping to find at the train's snowpiercing head, the enigmatic Wilford, architect of both transport and new world order.

For such a grand vision there is inevitable friction between the more action-based set-pieces and the video-game-like level-up quality to each new carriage the group encounter, and the numerous pauses for ponderous character development and narrative exposition, but the sense of scale is immensely impressive and cleverly envisaged, and indeed, the conceptual idea of a train forever condemned to circumnavigate the decaying inhospitable globe while humanity's hierarchy is kept in check has a certain Sisyphusian nihilism about it that carries an undeniably compelling existentialist weight. Snowpiercer will be worth the weight then when it eventually chugs through the UK. An oddity to be sure, but a visually impressive and hauntingly cerebral one too.