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There is one clever and rather effective scene in Snowpiercer, the new movie about a train containing all the survivors of a global warming apocalyptic event that travels the world and can never stop.
Just as a battle royale is about to erupt, everyone is ordered to stop and wait while some of the participants count down from ten as the train passes over a certain bridge, a bridge the train passes over only once annually, meaning that it’s, wait for it…yes, New Years.
Once the countdown is over, it’s back to the bloodshed.
But outside of that, I’m sorry, but I have to say…no, you know what? I’m not sorry.
Snowpiercer is crap.
How crappy is it?
Even for crap, it’s crap.
It’s crap from the tail to the engine.
It is pure, uncut, 100% unadulterated crap.
If you looked up “crap” in the OED, the picture next to the definition would be of Snowpiercer.
I mean, it’s so crappy, it made me do the unthinkable: feel empathy for producer Harvey Weinstein who wanted to take the movie out of the director’s hands and recut and shorten it (until I realized that even if Weinstein did that, it wouldn’t have helped, it would still be crap).
And I don’t care if it has earned a 97% rating on rottemtomatoes.com among the top critics (who should know better and should be ashamed of themselves). It’s crap.
And I don’t care how much money it’s raked in at the box office so far. It’s crap.
And I don’t care if all my friends/acquaintances/enemies gang up on me on social media and call me an idiot (get in line). It’s crap.
Oh, BTW, did I happen to mention that Snowpiercer is crap? Well, if I didn’t, let me say it loud and clear, here and now, Snowpiercer is crap.
The direction is by Joon-ho Bong, the great South Korean filmmaker of Memories of Murder, Mother and The Host.
But as far as I’m concerned, with this new piece of cinematic celluloid, he’s now the latest example of what happens when a talented foreign director comes to the U.S. to make a film or makes a film in English trying to appeal to an American and/or world wide audience, or tries to mimic American filmmaking: after making a successful and/or attention getting movie in their own country, they are punished for their sins by being given or deciding to do, well, I won’t say crap, so let us say material that is, oh, somewhat beneath them to direct.
We’ve had John (Hard Boiled, A Better Tomorrow, Bullet in the Head) Woo doing Hard Target and a Mission Impossible movie; Denis (Incendies) Villeneuve doing Prisoners; Tom (Run, Lola, Run) Twyker doing Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, The International and Cloud Atlas; Chan-wook (Oldboy, Thirst) Park doing Stoker; Neill (District 9) Blomkamp doing Elysium.
Of course, I’m exaggerating. Other directors have fared a bit better (Nicolas Winding Refn). Though I think Jean Luc Godard said it all when he took the money from his American backers and made Contempt
But still, I do feel that whenever a foreign director crosses the shores (or borders) in some way, it feels, more often than not, like they end up doing some script that some producer just happened to have laying around in some drawer (to paraphrase Michael Hanake).
And the movies that result are usually crap.
And Snowpiercer is no exception.
Of course, as far as I know, this is all on Bong (and Woo, Villeneuve, et al. as well). As far as I know, this was his project, his baby, from the very beginning and he has no one but himself to blame. I can’t argue that. And apparently it was made with Korean money. It just seems odd that the very first movie he makes in the English language is, like all the others I mentioned, well, crap, and not just crap, but crappity crap crap crap.
Snowpiercer is what is called a metaphor. Like District 9 really being about immigration and Elysium really being about universal health care, Snowpiercer is not about what it is about. At the same time, what it is supposed be about, what it’s supposed to be a metaphor for, is something I’m a bit cloudy on, mainly because it seems to change its target from moment to moment and train car to train car.
It starts out as a story that reflects class differences and the widening economic gap of the 99%/1% (though it seems to reflect Medieval serfdom or the state of things just before the French and Russian revolution more than modern America) and ends as…well, hell if I know. But whatever it is, at that point it basically seems to be saying, you know what, we changed our minds and all of humanity; the rich, the poor; the have, the have nots; the saints, the sinners, are all so worthless, they should all be sent to hell.
It seems an odd journey for a director and writer to take (the screenplay is by Kelly Masterson and Bong, based upon a graphic novel, which, from what I can tell, has a plot that seems to bear very little to any resemblance to the story Bong came up with here), to go from sympathy with the poor and disenfranchised to saying, eh, a plague on both your houses, let ‘em all die, the world’s better off without humans in it at all.
And the ending is even more puzzling. After lots of violence and sleep inducing, shallow philosophical and political talk (mainly from Wilford, the creator of the train, played by Ed Harris, though his playing god is not as interesting this time around as it was in The Truman Show), two people are left alive: a teenage girl and an even younger boy.
But this final scene is directed as if their survival is a sign of hope, of promise, of a chance for a new future. But, no, people, no.
Bong and Masterson may think that these two survivors are the future of humanity, but in reality they are the last of it. You can’t repopulate the world with only two people (or if you try, I’d hate to think how it would all turn out—you know, those pesky and annoying genetic issues brought about by inbreeding?).
The beginning is no better. It basically opens in the middle of act one, which means that a lot of clunky dialog and unclear plot devices have to be introduced in order to get the story going.
And after that, nothing in the movie makes much sense, even in the context of a comic book type story in which realism and logic aren’t necessarily what everyone is striving for. One of the more ridiculous revelations is that of a series of late night calls that went on for hours between someone in the tail of the train with someone at the head—just how this person could do this for eighteen years and never get caught is just a bit on the preposterous side.
Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the story is that no one in the tail section ever asks the most obvious question: why are they kept alive? They serve no purpose; they never work (there does seem to be some sort of small middle class cooking, farming, bartending types along the way, though like in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, it’s unclear exactly where this class lives or how this part works, but it’s definitely not in the tail); none of these unfortunates contribute in any way. But for some reason, that no one ever questions, they are allowed to exist.
But Bong and Masterson are trapped here. They can’t ask the question, because if they do, then the audience will start to wonder and will subsequently guess one of the twists at the end. The problem, though, is that because none of the characters asked, I did, and, quickly sensing that the writers were trying to hide something, I quite easily figured out what was going on.
And then when the other big secret is revealed, the disclosure as to who has been sending the hero coded messages and why, all I could think was, are you telling me that someone went to all this trouble to achieve something that could have been achieved with far less activity and danger to anyone, especially to the existence of the train? Really? I mean, really?
Besides being flat and uninteresting (and clunky), the dialog also has a couple of excuse me moments, as well. At one point, Curtis, our hero (Chris Evans) and best friend Edgar (Jamie Bell) are confronted by a car full of masked men with axes and other sharp edged weapons. Curtis tells Edgar, “be careful”, and I turned to my friend and whispered, “As opposed to what”?
At another moment, the group has stopped their warfare to have sushi (no, I’m not making this up) with Mason, the go-between between the tail and the engine (a bucked tooth Tilda Swinton who is bucked toothed because…, well, I guess because everyone involved thinks that buck tooth people are inherently funny). When Mason says that they only have sushi twice a year and can anyone guess why, Tanya (Octavia Spencer), one of the tail members, says “not enough fish”. Mason says, no, that it’s because it’s the only way to keep a balance between humans and fish so that the fish can survive…so, in other words, not enough fish.
Bong also can’t settle on a tone. Half the time, it’s deadly serious, the other half it’s high camp satire (especially whenever Mason is on the scene) and these two extremes just never fit together.
The acting ranges from mediocre (John Hurt, Bell, Spencer, Harris, Bong fave Kang-ho Song) to execrable (Swinton, who most of the time seems to be in a Monty Python skit). In the defense of the actors, they don’t really have a lot to work with here. And poor Chris Evans. He’s not a great actor; I can’t say he’s even a very good actor. But I doubt even Laurence Olivier could have pulled off that embarrassing monologue he has to deliver at the end.
The best performance is probably given by Vladimir Ivanov, the remarkable Romanian actor of such movies as 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days and Police, Adjective, who says almost nothing as a silent killing machine who just won’t die.
And I do have to say, from a technical standpoint, Snowpiercer is a marvel with remarkable sets, costumes, makeup and cinematography.
But still, outside of that, Snowpiercer is crap.