To hear that studio executives want to trim down or alter brainy science fiction films is not very rare. Just ask Terry Gilliam, who battled with Universal studio head Sidney Sheinberg over the final cut of Brazil. Or, recall that Warner Bros. released a version of Blade Runner in 1982 that few would consider its essential cut. So, when Harvey Weinstein proposed to cut 20 minutes from the English-language, South Korean hit Snowpiercer for its North American release this summer, fans of Bong Joon-Ho reacted with scathing vitriol. As it stands in its 126-minute form, Snowpiercer is too conceptually dense and absurdly entertaining to cut down to palate the needs of dim audiences. That version would simply be too confusing. However, what we’re presented with is far from a science fiction classic.
Snowpiercer touches on themes related to the disparity between rich and poor, although for every rich idea of visionary wonder, poor storytelling weighs it down. The concept is fascinating, yet the exposition of how this dystopian society works is stilted. The performances are uniformly good, but many of the characters are hollow. The production design is glorious, yet the special effects are distractingly amateurish. Finally, every time we think we are going to learn more about the secrets of this dystopian society, we are only left with more burning questions.
Based off a French graphic novel, Snowpiercer takes place in 2031, 17 years after the fight to curb global warming turned cold – literally. After environmental groups protested, governments developed a chemical, CW-7, to chill the global temperature. However, the chemical backfired and froze the earth into a barren wasteland.
The precious few souls left in the world are on a train created by an engineering magnate named Wilford. The back of the train is a rattling ark, overcrowded with people who look like they have not showered in those 17 enduring years. The compartment itself is as muddy brown as a jail cellar and overcrowded as a Nazi-run ghetto. The food – protein blocks, which looks like chunks of Jell-O dipped in oil – comes in rations.
The vigilant Curtis (a bearded Chris Evans) and his friend Edgar (Jamie Bell) hope to lead the fight out of the tail of the train. The sagely Gilliam (John Hurt) aspires to get to the front and control the engine, but he was a fighter from yesteryear. Meanwhile, single mom Tanya (Octavia Spencer) wants to reunite with her son, after guards grabbed him away from her and took him to Wilford. Lastly, we have the drug-addled Namgoong Minsu (frequent Bong collaborator Song Kang-ho), who could help our heroes get closer to the front, since he designed the train’s doors.
Bong’s adventure is riveting and rough, pierced by moments of stunningly choreographed if bone-cracking brutal violence as the back car’s warriors try to fend off cloaked baddies hoping to keep them resigned to the train’s tail. Within the armored train, locked tight, the director has complete visual control. Aided by cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo (Mother), Bong is able to keep the quarters tight for intimate scenes of revolt planning and preparation and more expansive for the exceptional fight scenes, when dozens of wounded warriors engage in warfare – both of the physical kind and the class kind.
Snowpiercer works well, although imperfectly, as a commentary on class warfare. The train is a clever metaphor for clumping people within a different class of travel – with all of the prestige up at the front. Bong is not as heavy-handed about the disparity of wealth as, say, Neil Blomkamp was with Elysium, but the characterizations of the bourgeois characters are cartoonish and garish, to a fault. Tilda Swinton gives a shockingly enervating performance as Mason, a whiny totalitarian figure with bottle glasses, false teeth and a fur coat who threatens the passengers with cute slogans. “I am a hat, you are a shoe,” she purrs, in a moment just as absurd as one where Alison Pill shows up as a dopamine schoolteacher trying to brainwash kids with stories about the glory of Wilford’s train.
Speaking of the train, it is a glorious piece of set design. The further Snowpiercer chugs along, the more of a look we get at the cruise ship-like concoction that Wilford devised. Each new compartment is entirely different. Part of the fun of what could be a gruelling sci-fi actioner is not just seeing how the passengers react to these new environments, but how Bong explores them with a variance of colour, music choice and camera settings.
There are a wealth of originally composed fight sequences in Snowpiercer. One in particular, gruff and graceful, has the famished warriors from the tail encounter dozens of ninja-like soldiers waiting with axes. The space opens up, the music turns somber and the cutting becomes decisive yet minimal (recalling, to an extent, the hallway fight with the hammer in Oldboy). Bong shakes the camera only when the action starts to rumble. When a tunnel submerges the compartment in darkness, the warriors flail but the ninja baddies use night-vision radar to their advantage, creating quite the body count. The suspense and composition of the sequence is a triumph, with both passionate bloodlust and patience.
However, as carefully filmed as the violent bursts are, they are a stylistic highlight in a rather hit-and-miss action vehicle. With the exception of Curtis, most of the characters are thin and exist to spout exposition to explain the order of how things work on the train. The clunky dialogue should be unnecessary, given the immersive, steampunk-inspired set design, and as stunning as the production looks, the exterior shots of the train sliding through a frozen, mountainous wasteland looks like they were recycled from graphics of a late-90s snowboarding video game.
The more Bong reveals about the other compartments and how the train works, we are only left with more questions, few of which are answered before the film abruptly ends. When we finally meet up with Wilford, the man behind the engine, the plot grinds to a halt to make way for more indulgent babbling about societal woes and class differences. This scene reveals precious little that we did not already know or could infer from what had already been presented. It is a flat way to introduce the antagonist, and his proposal to Curtis is haphazardly explained.
Meanwhile, the only character who receives any sort of meaningful arc is Curtis, who unleashes his rage at another as he describes his harrowing upbringing at the back of the train, as well as the incident that spiralled him into a will to revolt. Evans is the sole cast member who reveals pertinent exposition without making it seem like a barrage of new information, showing both the determination spawned by a tragic incident, as well as the vulnerability and insecurity he built up over the years. It also helps that Marco Beltrami’s heady musical score matches Curtis’s tightly wound anger.
We leave Snowpiercer more exhausted with questions than invigorated by its unique vision and style. It is a formidable example of directorial control bogged down by poor writing, half-finished effects work and a rather thin exploration of a fascinating dystopian universe. As captivating as it is frustrating, Snowpiercer would be an even poorer action film with 20 minutes of cuts from The Weinstein Company. If anything, Snowpiercer could be improved if 20 minutes were added.
Snowpiercer is an ambitious and stylishly designed slice of dystopian sci-fi, yet it is also incomplete, filled with shallow characters and unexplored ideas.