Monday, July 21, 2014


Alternate Title:  Off the Rails

One sentence synopsis:    A perpetual-motion, class-segregated train experiences a working-class uprising following the end of the world.

Things Havoc liked:  Despite my best efforts, it was probably inevitable that I would go to see this movie, the product of a South Korean filmmaker (Bong Joon-Ho) and a French graphic novelist (Jacques Lob), two things that, if you'll forgive a stereotype, typically are completely insane. French graphic novels, for whatever reason, tend towards the surreal and the nonsensical, while Korean action films, particularly sci-fi ones, bend in the same direction. Throw in a whole pile of A-list western actors I love (and a couple I don't), and it was probably predictable that I would eventually make my way through the door.

Seventeen years after an attempt to end global warming backfired disastrously and froze the entire planet, a train running on a perpetual motion machine circles the world once every year on an endless ride to nowhere. Locked within are literally all that's left of humanity and its works, from the upper class to the lower classes, strictly segregated by train car, with the rich living it up with their literally priceless luxuries and the poor crammed into the tail section to wither and die at the whim of their overlords. Among these poor have-nothings are Chris Evans, playing Curtiss, a rebel leader preparing the latest in a series of attempted uprisings to seize control of more of the train and force the front section group to equalize everything. I'm a big fan of Evans thanks to the Captain America/Avengers series, as you well know, and I've also been a fan of his in the non-Marvel stuff he's done, such as Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Sunshine. His character here is nothing to write home about, and has the unenviable task of basically getting no characterization until the very end of the film, where we get it all in one heap, but Evans knows how to play with material like this, and gets across everything he needs to with a few understated gestures and expressions. It is nice, admittedly, to see him get a bit dirtier than his Captain America persona would allow, chopping people apart with hatchets or blowing them away deadpan with firearms. John Hurt meanwhile is playing the exact same character that John Hurt plays these days, a wise, bewhiskered leader who serves as the surrogate commander to Evans' field officer, while Jamie Bell and The Help's Octavia Spencer turn in better performances than I'm accustomed to from either of them as secondary characters supporting the revolution.

But the best of them all is unquestionably Tilda Swinton, an actress I've seen all over the place in the last year or so, and who seems to be desperately laboring to secure the title of "weirdest actor in the universe", (which given the competition she has for such a title, demands quite an effort). Swinton plays Mason, a loudspeaker-wielding martinet straight out of a Marx Brothers spoof, who marches imperiously into trian cars filled with filthy, starving families, and berates them like a whiny schoolteacher for being disorderly while soldiers steal their children and hack off their limbs. Her performance is so weird that it's almost fascinating, even by Tilda Swinton's admittedly elevated standards for this sort of thing, stitched up in a schoolmarm outfit with oversized sunglasses and a barely-functioning microphone. She adds, if nothing else, a modicum of interest to the generally basic workings of the film.

This is Bong Joon-Ho's first English language film, as well as the first one I've seen of his, but the man knows how to point cameras. The style of this movie is all its own, a strange, almost Burton-esque design for the varied and frankly absurd lineup of train cars that the heroes must battle their way through. Several sequences, including one where the two sides engage in a long-range gun battle between cars as the train goes round a large bend, are inventively enough done, and the frozen world beyond the train, only seen in brief glimpses through windows, has a stark, but colorful feel to it. The style carries over into the action sequences, particularly an early one which begins well lit, switches to night-vision, and then to torchlight, each transition accompanied by an interesting, and inventive series of visual devices. Say whatever you will about Bong's filmmaking, his visuals leave little to complain about.

Things Havoc disliked: But don't worry, there's plenty else for that.

This film is presently in the process of generating widespread critical acclaim, a fact I have literally no explanation for. Yes, the acting has high points, yes the visuals are inventive, but is that all that audiences nowadays require? A few nice images and a performance that manages to get beyond "mediocre"? Have standards slipped this low? Or am I just a curmudgeonly bastard who can't appreciate great art?

Snowpiercer is a profoundly stupid movie, this much is no surprise, but what is, or should be a surprise is that the stupidity is not merely in terms of its premise, nor even its story, but in the choices made by the director and writer of this mess. I alluded earlier to the fact that Chris Evans' characterization is left until the end of the film, whereupon it is all delivered to us in one big fat expo-dump, as if the writer realized four fifths of the way through his project that he had added no characterization whatsoever and so rather than back up, decided to simply devote five minutes to telling the audience what they were supposed to have been shown. I recognize that characterization is an afterthought in a movie like this, but given that the film actually dials the action back after the midway point of the film in order to focus on the "daring" social commentary at work here, I'm not entirely sure it was supposed to be one.

Oh and speaking of that daring social commentary, I recognize that a movie like this takes refuge in audacity by painting with a broad brush, but there's a difference between a broad brush and a steamroller. The villains are so evil as to be cartoonish, literally unable to perceive why someone might object to being forced to live in squalor, to surrender their children to lifetimes of drudgery, or to having their spouses beaten and crippled in front of their eyes. Again, nothing wrong with that in theory, except that the film tries to excuse the villains' myopia by painting them as some kind of cult dedicated to the worship of the train's leader, whose secret machinations are presented, the more things get surreal, as being set up for some kind of "big reveal". It's as if the movie is saying "Trust us, we're going somewhere with all this weirdness," trying to get us to buy into the fact that the villains are not as stupid as they're being characterized as.

What's the big reveal? Nothing. The villains are actually that stupid. In fact Ed Harris gets a lengthy, almost interminable scene wherein he monologues for ten minutes about the fact that he and the rest of the villains are precisely that stupid. Thanks for that.

That's the problem with the movie in a nutshell. The notion of all of humanity being locked on a perpetual train is one that is manifestly stupid and could be dealt with either by showing us how it is that this society is able to operate at all, or by dodging the question in favor of badass action sequences. This film basically decides to hint towards doing the former before pulling the rug out from under us at the last minute and revealing that they actually are doing the latter, except without any of the compensatory awesomeness that makes a movie like The Raid or The Lego Movie work despite the thinness of its plot. And when you take away a handful of decent action scenes or inventive shots, there's really nothing left except a handful of hints towards an actual explanation as to what the hell is going on that never comes. Action movies do not need a defense to exist, spectacle is its own justification after all, but this film omits most of the spectacle without replacing it with any sort of justification for its own existence. And so in the time-honored tradition of bad movies the world over, Snowpiercer, for all its promise and hype, becomes nothing more than a simple series of events which happen and then are over. Curtain up. Thanks for the money.

Final thoughts:   I get the sense that I'm not making my case particularly well here, but Snowpiercer is a movie that is bad in a way all its own. I have seen plenty of films that did not leave up to the hype of their trailers, but this is perhaps the first film I've ever seen that did not live up to the hype of its own script. Implicitly promising depth that does not exist as a means of excusing the fact that we do not get the spectacle we were initially promised in the trailers, the movie winds up coming across, at least to me, as a shaggy dog story, so transparently a waste of time as to seem almost cynical. One should always assume good faith in the production of movies of course, so perhaps there's a cultural thing at work here, but the result, ultimately, is a movie I could not wait to see the end of in all the worst ways.

My neighbors in viewing this film made the decision to bring copious quantities of liquor into the theater (they offered me a bottle of whiskey partway through), and at the end of the film, asked me if it had actually been as bad as their drunken perceptions told them it was. When I assured them that it was, they expressed total mystification at the fact that friends of theirs had recommended this film to them. I told them that any friends that did so clearly did not like them very much.

In my case, it was fellow critics that informed me of this film's qualities, and whom I must consequently conclude are out to get me. But then that's not new information.

Final Score:  3.5/10

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