Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Snowpiercer: Ax Murder on the Terry Gilliam Express

I'm gonna say this now: this has been a mixed summer for me film-wise. It hasn't been completely awful, but outside of a couple of standouts, there haven't been a lot of entries that made me go 'THIS was worth it!' Nothing really made me think 'This was a great summer movie' like previous years have. Which makes it an odd mix of funny and a bit sad that the summer release that does it for me the most is one that was half-buried on arrival.

For months, Snowpiercer was the movie that was mainly known for the feud between director Bong Joon-Ho and the Weinstein brothers over distribution. For those who don't know the story, word is the Weinsteins wanted to cut twenty minutes of the film- a move Joon-Ho balked at and challenged. He eventually got his cut through, but the major release was scaled back to a limited one. For a time, people were concerned this meant the movie would be doomed in the 'New York and Los Angeles only' loop. A fear that was thankfully misplaced.

Upon finally seeing it this week, I can honestly say it's been well worth the wait.

For those not familiar with the film- and sadly, thanks to the PR game, this might be a lot of people- the story (adapted from the French comic Le Transperceneige) takes place in a different style of dystopian future. As global warming spirals out of control, humanity attempts to solve the problem with an quick-fix experimental chemical known as CW-7 (Editor's note: Because OF COURSE WE WOULD). It works WAY too well- temperatures drop too far, too fast, and the world is plummeted into another ice age. All that remains of humanity is living aboard a specially powered, self-sustaining train designed by the mysterious industrialist Wilford. No, it's not a scientifically sound setting. No, you won't get a gold star on the internet for talking about how the setting doesn't make sense. It's not trying to be 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of scientific accuracy. For the sake of the story the movie's trying to tell, it's consistent with its own rules. Just take that as it is now and you'll find this ride a LOT easier to take and enjoy.

and if that's still not enough for you, consider this - Wilford gave this train an aquarium car.
If that doesn't render your argument irrelevant, I don't know what to tell you.

When the movie begins proper, the train has been running for seventeen years. Society has stratified in a big way. Picture Metropolis by way of Brazil-  those in the front cars live a life of insane levels of opulence, while those in the back are herded like cattle around a mobile ghetto and fed on a diet of processed protein bars. Quite literally, they live to serve the needs of those in the front of the train.

The conditions in the storyboard department are particularly awful as a consequence of this

Among those in the back, a rebellion is brewing. Guided by the aged Gilliam (John Hurt) and rallied by the angry Curtis (Chris Evans) the people in the tail of the train make plans for an uprising. Unlike those before them, they are determined to fight their way to the front of the train to confront Wilford himself- or die trying.

This is one of those films that works by taking a familiar framework and making it succeed through execution. Science fiction is full of stories of dystopian uprisings, and this film isn't trying to reinvent the wheel,  rather it's determined to make one VERY exciting wheel in the process. Alongside the rebellion aspect, the movie also has a good streak of just straight up adventure in its proceedings. Each new cart of the train they manage to fight their way onto offers new sights and new dangers. The more they press on, the group finds the stakes going up as their numbers shrink - without giving anything further away, it's worth noting that one of the main themes throughout the movie is the idea of sacrifice of the individual for the greater good.
The only aid they find outside their own ranks comes from a former security specialist and his daughter (Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung, respectively) and a hostage turned unwilling guide (Tilda Swinton in an entertaining mix of smug and self-serving, as the situation dictates.)

In the troubled times of a dystopian future, it's worth remembering your next of kin can readily double as a club if you're desperate.

Alongside these outsiders, the team the movie has put together are an interesting crew. As our protagonist with both a figurative and literal ax to grind, Evans's Curtis is a VERY different role from his more famous turn as Captain America. Where his other role is a man with a clearly defined sense of right and wrong, Curtis is a man who's seen and done some horrible things in the interest of staying alive, and he won't let himself forget that. As the one person he pins his trusts on, Hurt provides the kind edge to the harsh world at the back of the train. Like Curtis, he's been living this Hell since the beginning, but he's also recognized the value of empathy within it. Alongside these two the team also includes Octavia Spencer as a woman determined to get her son back from the front of the train, Jamie Bell as Curtis's surrogate little brother and biggest supporter, and Ewen Bremner as another parent whose lost much to the front and is itching for some payback.

I realize it's his vision and I respect that - but I think Abrams is making a mistake by not making this the team for the new Star Wars movies.

It's tricky actually praising individual performances in this, since there so many talented actors at work. Alongside the team mentioned above, Kang-ho and Ah-sung provide interesting performances, first appearing as little more than a pair of burned-out junkies before slowly revealing they know more than they're letting on. Likewise, as mentioned above, Swinton's turn as Wilford's zealot/mouthpiece Mason is a bizarrely memorable turn for the actress. For a role that was written with another person and gender in mind, she still manages to take it and make the character distinctly her own, resulting in a character you can be entertained by while also wanting to smack her for her proselytizing. Speaking of the devil, Ed Harris makes an brief but memorable appearance in the final act as the elusive Wilford. He plays the man with an odd mix of almost paternal warmth and ruthless pragmatism. His ability to calmly and casually explain all the necessary evils of his society is almost admirable, even with the knowledge we have of the horrifying actions he's had carried out to keep the train running. It's not a performance that immediately goes head and shoulders above the others, but it's a wonderfully understated turn that really helps drive home the final act.

The stories of just how it was that John Hurt escaped the set of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull remain a mystery. Those that saw him in the weeks immediately after, however, are all in agreement he did NOT get away easily.

Besides the cast, Joon-Ho's direction is a big factor in what keeps this movie running. The action sequences he's put together on this film are some of the best I've seen in recent years. One particular highlight being an extended fight between Curtis's army of determined revolutionaries and the ax-toting enforcers Mason has deployed to defend the train's water purification cart. The sequence moves in starts and stops, its lulls accented by some great 'stare down' moments to build the tension before resuming the carnage and keep up the energy. It's a great multi-stage sequence and one of the most memorable in the film. After that fight, the direction changes up styles. Each new car in the front of the train is almost like its own little world, evoking feelings ranging from unusual calm (an aquarium car that provides first class passengers with fish) to the comic/disturbing (a visit to a classroom is the pinnacle of black humor in this film.) Joon-Ho handles the transitions between each room and style well, especially factoring in the characters this movie is focused on: this is an alien experience for many of them who've been living in squalor for ages, and the film nails that almost otherworldly feeling.

In the initially proposed recuts, this scene was going to be set to the song Love Train.
Test audiences liked it - just for all the wrong reasons.

This is one of those reviews I've had to write and rewrite several times in order to come to a point I'm satisfied with.

It's a movie that, to talk about, is incredibly easy to lapse into just talking out the whole story. Which, of course, I don't want to do to you guys - especially because this is a movie that's really worth seeing if you can find a theater playing it. It's certainly not a bold new revolution in filmmaking, but it's a strong offering from an already pretty established director and a great first foray into the English language film market. On top of which, I'm really not exaggerating when I say this is easily one of the best movies I've seen this year and certainly this summer. I tried my best not to go into hyperbole, but it's not exaggerating to say that here.

Really, if you know of any place showing this, it's well worth the two hours to go see. I won't say it's the cinematic second coming, but you can expect a well-written, high energy action film that is INCREDIBLY satisfying for this summer movie season.

So maybe I caved to hyping it a little. It is worth it though, and hopefully this sold some of you on seeing it.

Keep an eye out, got another review lined up in the next couple of days. It's a bit of an older title, but one that's recently seen a fresh take.

Till then.

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