Snowpiercer (2013)

I really liked The Host. I went back and tried to watch Memories of  a Murder but didn’t make it too far, and I haven’t seen Mother. But I like the writer/director, Joon-ho Bong enough to put them back in the queue. At least I like The Host enough.

Snowpiercer is on Netflix right now, surprisingly, because it has still been running the festival circuit (which makes me feel better about not getting into some festivals I sent my scratchy little 8-minute student film to), and was in limited release in June, and not big anywhere else. It’s huge other places – it was made for about 32M and has made something like 86M worldwide, only 4.5M here in the U.S.

It’s not a regular action movie. Reportedly Harvey Weinstein, a producer/distributor made a version with 20 minutes of cuts, maybe he doesn’t get a percentage of the worldwide revenues and wanted to make sure it was a hit in the U.S. I think it would be a tough sell no matter what. The version on Netflix is the ‘universal’ 2h 6 min version as far as I can tell.

It’s really violent. Not in a torture-porn way, not in a Transformers way. In a “let’s have two armies fight to the death on a train with hatchets” kind of way. There’s no sexualized violence, no sexualized anything – it’s all about plain old revolutionary violence and fighting. There are some really cool sequences – the run-up and attack on a huge guy swinging around a huge weight to keep the mob away by a character called Grey (Luke Pasqualino, who apparently wasn’t trained as a fighter but could have fooled me) was amazingly Matrix-like. When the attack up the train begins, it’s a tense scene, really tense. Actually as soon as it starts it doesn’t really let up, though there are some bizarre little pauses in action that surprised me. I didn’t really enjoy them – I kept waiting for something terrible to happen. Maybe if I watched it again I’d see their place. The violence was so surprising other places I never felt like I knew what was going to happen. There’s a horror-movie like sequence in the middle (you’ll know it when you see it) that fits perfectly with the terror they keep running into, and the information that Mason chirps off before it starts is important later – I guess that’s something it did well, it really build things up in layers. Everything means more than one thing.

It isn’t afraid to kill its darlings. Like some sci-fi message movies (Contagion comes to mind) it sticks with characters as long as it needs to and then moves on, though it has a few it follows the whole way through.

For me the standouts were two Korean actors, Kang-ho Song, a gate-cracker they need to get out of prison, and his daughter Ah-sung Ko (both of them pulled out of morgue-like beds, which make sense in a twisted way, to save space). They were both in the Host, and played a father / daughter combo there, I just realized. They made it feel more human. Their characters wandered through and did their job to earn drugs as payment. It’s so heavy sometimes – it’s an allegory, basically – and when these two could lighten it up just by playing things a little differently and not-on-the-nose it’s fun. It’s a good allegory, well put together, about the sacrifices of leadership, control and balance in society, what lies “need told” to keep things in order, etc. It’s a little tame on some things than I expected. Maybe the need to stay with the comic limited how things could happen and dialogue. It was slightly clunky in parts. I wonder what 20 minutes would have been cut. If it was from a couple of bits at the end, would have been ok with me.

There’s this whole thing with limbs, like limbs of bodies. Sacrificing ‘life and limb’ is literal here. As a symbol and practical idea it pervades the whole movie. It’s connected to the religious theme of the movie – the train conductor as God – and what challenging that idea brings (this reminds me of the Reign of Fire, where they chant instructions for avoiding dragons religiously). The Host was basically anarchist – things just kept happening and going whatever direction they needed to – where this is more or less straightforward masses overthrowing a jerk dictator. It does make me want to read the comic, because there are obvious pieces missing, and it’s probably worth watching again if you can stomach it to add the layer we get at the end to the beginning. As far as I can tell it’s consistent – things build up on each other naturally one compelling way before doubling back to have meaning in a second compelling way.

There’s a great scene (part of which is in the trailer) where Tilda Swinton (Mason) is giving a speech to the crowd before punishing them for disobedience (she also adds some humanity, she’s anything but stiff), and as we look behind her at the crowd the rail cars behind the one we’re in gently sway back and forth, the edges in and out of sight. It’s a nice touch. I’d like to see the director Joon-ho Bong untethered from a set story again, he goes strange and cool places on his own. This is making buckets of money – maybe he can do whatever he wants next.

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