Despite all the positive buzz this spring I couldn't bring myself to see Edge of Tomorrow. I just couldn't shake the feeling that I had seen it all before, time and again. I didn't feel that way about Snowpiercer, but while I went to the local arthouse to see it today, its American distributor felt that Bong Joon-ho's wintry apocalypse would have the opposite problem: it would not seem familiar enough to American audiences. As genre movie buffs know by now, Snowpiercer has been "dumped" into arthouses in its director's cut after Miramax could not compel Bong, one of South Korea's star directors, to cut the film and make it more U.S.-friendly in some way. For all I know, the controversy was a clever ploy that may salvage what otherwise might have been a catastrophic bomb had it rolled out wide in the multiplexes. It had a good holiday crowd in my town, at least, but it probably never would have been a blockbuster, even with Chris "Captain America" Evans in the lead. It simply isn't cool in the right way. Instead, it's weird in a way that has become a sort of Korean national style, even though Bong nods quite obviously to Anglo-American influences. Put another way, it's weird in a way that makes it genuinely fantastic rather than merely cool, but that may take it out of many people's comfort zone. One person's weird is more people's "stupid," alas.
In case Korean cinema is all a blur for you, Bong Joon-ho is the one who made the classic procedural Memories of Murder and the monster comedy The Host, among others, both of which star Song Kang-ho, who is the lead Korean in Snowpiercer. Bong and American writer Kelly Masterson adapted a French graphic novel that at first glance might appeal to Republican conservatives, since it portrays the disastrous unintended consequences of an attempt to reverse global warming. The effort to cool the atmosphere proved too successful, causing a global deep freeze survived only by those thousands who managed to board the Snowpiercer supertrain, which now circles the globe constantly. The story proper begins a generation later, when the train's designer, Mr. Wilford (Ed Harris) is worshipped, to use a Korean analogy, like someone from the Kim dynasty. Wilford is no communist, however; the Snowpiercer is segregated on class lines, an elite living luxuriously toward the front, the majority living like shit toward the rear. The poor live in filth and feed on a daily allowance of "protein blocks" that look nasty even before you learn their key ingredient. They haven't taken it lying down, however. There have been periodic uprisings and Curtis Everett (Evans) is planning the latest. The spark is the armed seizure of two small children for purposes unknown and the atrocious punishment of one child's father (Ewen Bremner) for throwing a shoe in protest. His right arm is put through a porthole to freeze while Mason (Tilda Swinton), a spokesperson for Wilford, lectures the rabble on accepting their predestined places in life and on the train. The man's arm is removed and shattered with a hammer; it turns out that many older passengers in the rear cars are missing limbs, though not for the reasons we first assume. Under Curtis's leadership, the rebels weld barrels together into a part battering ram, part tunnel for the moment when three security gates open simultaneously. To go further, they must liberate imprisoned security expert Namgoong Min-su (Song) from a morgue-like prison. He knows how to open the gates all the way to the lead cars and the Great Engine, but he's hopelessly addicted to Cronol, a form of industrial waste with hallucinogenic properties. As long as the rebels can keep him and his daughter in the nasty stuff, they'll keep pressing forward with Mason as their hostage.
The Snowpiercer is a microcosm of our class-based society with spectacular luxury cars that stun the rebels and the movie audience alike. The film occasionally loses its sense of urgency as the rebels pause to eat sushi, gape at an all-encompassing aquarium car and sit in on an elementary class teaching the genius of Mr. Wilford, but the spectacle almost justifies the delay. While the dystopia train tells a pessimistic story of the perpetuation of inequality even at the brink of human extinction, the reduction in scale inspires Curtis's thought that now, finally, it's possible for the masses to "take over the engine" and finally control society. To do so, they have to go through well-armed guards -- though not so well-armed as they wanted people to think -- and one nearly-indestructible badass boss (Vlad Ivanov), before Curtis has his Apocalypse Now-meets-2001 encounter with Wilford and has his sense of mission subverted by some unexpected revelations. Fortunately, just as Curtis has his moment of doubt, Namgoong has an alternate idea: instead of trying to take over the train, why not just leave? Wilford preaches that it's death to detrain, but Namgoong has noticed from year to year that the ice is actually melting. Mankind could actually start over again, but it may be necessary to abandon the old society altogether to get a proper start.
Naming Curtis's mentor (John Hurt) "Gilliam" is a pretty obvious homage to a fairly obvious influence on Bong, but there's also a lot of superficial Kubrick elements here, including a direct musical quote from The Shining. Bong is clearly closer to Gilliam's sensibility than Kubrick's, though Snowpiercer as a whole looks like an attempt to acknowledge influences while leaving them behind. Somewhat more dimly, I was reminded of Roger Corman and Nicolas Roeg's Masque of the Red Death by the spectacular transitions from car to car, while any violent cinematic quest to meet a mad mastermind, as I've already noted, harkens back to Apocalypse Now. So Snowpiercer actually is "familiar" in some ways, at least to movie buffs. But Bong synthesizes all these influences to serve a vision that is distinctly his, in a film that has the freshness of a distinctive visual imagination. Cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo, who worked with Bong on his previous film, Mother, and production designer Ondreij Nekvasil, for whom this is a major step up in stature, deserve their shares of credit for realizing Bong's vision. In front of the camera, Snowpiercer further confirms Chris Evans's maturing into an authoritative leading man and action star, just as he's contemplating retirement to behind the camera. In a role more showy than substantial, Tilda Swinton echoes Jodie Foster's invocation of Margaret Thatcher, or a generic reactionary female, in last year's disappointing dystopia Elysium, but Swinton is unafraid to go for over-the-top caricature and gives a far more memorable and entertaining performance. Song Kang-ho makes a solid impression without having to speak English -- apparently the need for subtitles was one of Miramax's problems with the director's cut -- and despite his relatively late appearance becomes a virtual co-lead with Evans, getting a big speech in his own language to match the American's showcase confession of cannibalism and admission of sacrifice-envy. A global ensemble of character actors fill out the picture with the broad-stroke portrayals it needs. Overall, Snowpiercer is as much a roller-coaster ride -- often literally -- as any Hollywood sci-fi adventure, but I suppose it's too blatantly and honestly carnivalesque about it to be blockbuster cool, and that makes it an arthouse film in America. Ironically enough, Miramax thinks that this parable of inevitable class struggle, climaxing with the utter destruction of luxury and the idle rich, would only be enjoyed by the people in the front of the train.