I’ve written about certain movies on this blog that I think I’m going to call Arthouse Lite (I’m waiting for the copyright to come through so I can name a shitty adjunct beer – marketed as craft – after it). Arthouse Lite movies are the movies you show your friends to get them to realize there are more movies out there than the big hundred million dollar superhero blockbusters. Movies that are original and fresh and that can provide some extra entertainment value in that you are rewarded for thinking about them a little more in depth than usual. They’re usually very stylistic and a little on the weird side but not so over the top that they would alienate somebody who would have no reference to it. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain is not Arthouse Lite. Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (yes, that is a real movie) is not Arthouse Lite. Movies like Enemy, Donnie Darko, or Under the Skin are Arthouse Lite. They’re just offbeat enough to grab the attention and imagination of the average person, but won’t make them walk out of the theatre in disgust or boredom.
Snowpiercer is an Arthouse Lite Lite sci-fi action film and is the latest project directed by South Korea’s Bong Joon Ho, the same guy who gave us the critically acclaimed and still-on-my-To-Watch List movies Mother (2009) and Memories of Murder (2003). The movie is based on a dystopian sci-fi graffic novel from 1982 by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette called Le Transperceneige. Snowpiercer received a very small limited release before word of mouth gave it the momentum to warrant a much larger one. I’ve been excited about this movie since I heard about it a year or so ago. It has a rock solid cast, and I’ve got a soft spot for movies about rebellions and uprisings as well as movies that take place in one location. In case you didn’t know, the assembly of acting talent here includes Ed Harris, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt(!), and real life pretty boy Chris Evans. The basic plot of Snowpiercer is simple: In a post-apocalyptic frozen world, a train running on on a perpetual engine houses the last remaining dregs of humanity. The passengers on the train have been segregated Hunger Games style and the oppressed lower class folk in the rear of the train launch an assault lead by Curtis and Gilliam (Evans and Hurt respectively) to try and take over the front where the upper crust live. It’s your standard feel good story about the 99% toppling the 1%.
Except it isn’t.
Snowpiercer is a weird movie. It tackles a pretty serious and subject but it has no shortage of odd moments and quirks that kind of that feel like they should be in a kind of goofy shoot-em-up action comedy flick. I’m just letting you folks know up front that you shouldn’t take this movie too seriously. In this film about the struggle between the classes there’s a massive fight scene between the rebels and some ax wielding special ops soldiers where our main protagonist falls to the ground by slipping on a fish. Maybe it’s just a cultural difference between North American and South Korean audiences, but I’d wager you wouldn’t see something like that in whatever new mess of a movie DC is pumping out next year. So tonally, it flip flops between a kind of light hearted action romp and a politically charged thriller. Now I believe that a movie can balance multiple different (even polar opposite) tones if handled properly by the director. People like Edgar Wright, Sam Raimi, and Quentin Tarantino are adept enough at what they do to make you laugh, cry, be scared, and gross you out all in the same movie. I haven’t seen the rest of Joon Ho’s filmography, so maybe he’s shown mastery over the craft of switching tones in other movies, but Snowpiercer seems to suffer a little bit from these inconsistencies. You’ve got some brutal action sequences and really poignant social commentary, paired with the goofy and cartoonish Minister of the Train (played by the ever-lovely Tilda Swinton) constantly bumbling around. It’s not as bad of a disconnect as say, the original Last House on the Left but it’s still a little off putting.
All that being said, Snowpiercer is still a great movie to watch. The acting is great, as expected from a cast of this caliber, and Joon Ho’s directing and visual style is pretty exciting as well. There’s always a sense of movement and progression in the camera work. Despite the film taking place in a bunch of small, cramped individual cars on a train, it feels like our characters are advancing, constantly surging forwards towards their goals. He handles action nicely with minimal shaky-cam and allowing each shot to linger and breathe for a bit. There aren’t seventeen cuts in eight seconds, we as an audience get to see everything that happens clearly in frame. Joon Ho also has a couple references to scenes in other movies thrown in throughout Snowpiercer. Whether these were intentional or not, I don’t know. A particularly intense fight scene mimics the feel and style of the exceptional hallway fight in Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy, and later we’re treated to a brutal hand to hand fight in a sauna that’s reminiscent of the sauna/ bathhouse fight (NSFW due to extreme violence and Viggo Mortensen’s dong) in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises. Even near the end of the film when we get to see the very talked up engine of the train (it’s referred to as the Sacred Engine), it bears some resemblance to the hypnotic experimental gravity drive from Event Horizon. Maybe I’m stretching here, but the concentric circles and lighting of the Sacred Engine really gave me flashbacks to Event Horizon. I should watch that again sometime.
I’m going to briefly talk about my interpretation of the ending is, so if you haven’t seen Snowpiercer and don’t want the ending spoiled, here’s your warning paragraph. I enjoyed Snowpiercer, and would definitely recommend it. It’s a fun, weird action movie that follows a lot of tried and true tropes, but is different enough to feel refreshing and exciting. It’s by no means a perfect movie, but it’s worth two hours of your time. It’s a great flick to introduce mainstream audiences to something a little offbeat and get them interesting in more arty cinema. And it’s available on Netflix!
Alright, your spoiler warning is up.
On the surface, the ending is played as a hopeful one: The train is destroyed, the apocalyptic winter is slowly retracting, and Yona and Timmy see a polar bear indicating that there is life on Earth outside the train. After finishing the movie I was a little dissatisfied with the ending, and it took me a little while to figure out why. I see the ending as a bit more of a melancholy one. For it to be somewhat of a happy ending, there are a couple different post-movie outcomes that could happen.
- Yona and Timmy find that humans have holed up nearby and survived the frozen apocalypse.
- Yona and Timmy have got to get busy getting busy to rebuild the human race.
With regards to the first point, if there’s a polar bear nearby, odds are they’re way North in the Arctic circle, far away from any people. Even if people have survived, Yona and Timmy probably won’t make it through the extreme conditions to whatever remnants of society are left. Yona and Timmy can’t be the new Adam and Eve because that’s not how biology works, and Timmy is only like ten years old, you sick fuck.
I see the ending to be a statement of “nature conquers all”. A large point of contention between Curtis and Wilford at the end of the movie are their beliefs on how a society should be run. Each of them have valid points and provide solutions that are ideal in theory but flawed in practice. In the end, it wouldn’t matter who ran the show and how. Someone else would cause an uprising, and eventually, they would crumble. To quote the every edgy, dark, rebellious first year university student’s favorite film, Fight Club (but obviously they don’t know that the book existed first):
On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.
The final shot of the film is a polar bear, which represents nature as a whole. It’s the first wild animal we see in the whole movie, and it has survived the man-made apocalypse. Even after humanity has entirely died off when the train was derailed and Yona and Timmy eventually freeze to death (or get mauled by that bear), nature lives on. After humans destroyed the Earth and killed themselves all off, that final, lingering shot tells me that in the grand scheme of things, humans will be their own undoing, and the universe will keep going without batting an eye long after we’re all dead. Maybe I’m just an edgy nihilist.