According to the film’s Wikipedia page, SNOWPIERCER has made over $80 million in box office receipts. Makes sense as it was released at the start of the summer and features a poster with Chris Evans looking like a combo action star/serial killer. Without knowing a lick about the plot, who wouldn’t be at least a little curious as to what was going to unfold on screen?
I want, though, to imagine how a theater full of moviegoers at a suburban multiplex wrestled with what they saw over the course of this two hours. (I watched this at home as a pre-release screening download…that I waited until the beginning of August to finally check out.) Many of them have to have been inoculated to the world of Hong Kong/Korean action by this point, and willing to accept a small bit of surreality. But this…this is another animal entirely.
The plot itself is startlingly original and strangely prescient. You could imagine the leaders of the world agreeing to spray some chemical into the atmosphere to try and cool the planet. And you could likely imagine it going horribly wrong. But to drop the few remaining humans onto a train that never stops moving, complete with a caste-like social structure…now, that takes some left field thinking. For that we have to thank Jacques Lob, Jean-Marc Rochette, and Benjamin Legrand for coming up with the graphic novel on which this film is based.
I don’t want to get into a dull recitation of the plot here, as the numbers bear out that the few people reading this little piece have likely already seen it. So let’s instead talk about how Bong Joon-Ho and his crew constructed this film. Each section of the train and segment of SNOWPIERCER feels like a reflection of various cinematic influences.
The tail end of the train, where all the filthy untouchables and potential revolutionaries reside, is lit like a rail-bound sequel to DAS BOOT. The rail cars containing the supply of plants and fish feels like it was pulled from SILENT RUNNING. Bong pulls from the recent history of blood-drenched Asian action films in the sequence where the revolutionaries run into an army of black mask-clad, axe and machete wielding killers. The classroom car where a maniacal Alison Pill oversees the development of the train’s children feels like a surreal Wes Anderson homage. And everything in the front part of the train, from the nightclub to the sauna to the roaring engine room mashes up the previous 50 years of science fiction into an anarchic lump akin to the big wad of explosives that Namgoong Minsu uses to blow out the door of the train. Some of that must come from the fertile minds of the three Frenchmen who cooked up the source material, but credit Bong for pushing each new color palette and mood in front of the camera without flinching.
Those radical shifts in tone and action are important, too, to give viewers an uneasy feeling similar to trying to walk from one end of a moving train to another. It’s noisy with quick changes between light and dark, and as you move forward, you might wobble a little or a lot, but you’ll find your feet eventually. Mostly, it’s great to just sit back and watch the action and scenery float by you for the duration of the journey.
I know many folks out there balked at Harvey Weinstein’s notions that they should cut parts of the movie and add some opening and closing monologue to help (I’m guessing) explain the past and future of the world that SNOWPIERCER inhabits. I agree that it would have been terrible for the movie, but I also remember a conversation I had with a co-worker about FARGO some 20 years back. He liked it fine, but he wanted to have some sort of commentary on the screen that explained what happened to the people in the film later. What kind of prison sentence Jerry Lundegaard and Gaear Grimsud received, that kind of thing. There are still people out there that need things wrapped up in a nice tidy little package for them before they can feel that they got their money’s worth.
I’ll admit, I spent a little time afterwards wondering how people made it out of that massive train crash alive and what the future of the planet was going to look like if Yona and Timmy ended up being the only people in existence. I could even imagine a strange sequel based on either scenario. But in this world of franchising and planning out a cinematic universe from here until 2025, I think I prefer the lovely poetic finish to this wildly entertaining, allegorical epic. I am comfortable leaving those two standing in the snow and marveling over the sight of a polar bear. Let them move forward in some alternate cinematic universe while I shut the door and move on to something new.