Before “Snowpiercer” was a movie, it was a story.
I’m not referring to the French graphic novel by Jacques Lob, Jean-Marc Rochett, and Benjamin Legrand on which this dystopian action thriller is based, but of course to the months-long public quarrels between director Bong Joon-ho and producer Harvey Weinstein over the final cut.
Weinstein eventually backed down, agreeing to leave intact Bong’s vision in return for a narrower distribution plan. Given the South Korean auteur’s seeming victory of art over commerce (since it was widely reported that Weinstein wanted a less complicated version of the plot), it’s reasonable to assume that the film arriving in multiplexes is a triumph of creativity — or idiosyncrasy.
Though it’s not lacking in imagination, “Snowpiercer” is certainly the latter, a surprising experiment in tone and character that also works as a self-conscious action flick, simultaneously embracing and rejecting Hollywood blockbuster conventions. But the film’s two halves fail to coalesce: the battle between Chris Evans‘ squared-jawed everyman hero and Tilda Swinton‘s over-the-top villainess is like watching a can of meat boxing a killer clown. Nothing connects.
Thanks to “The Hunger Games,” the set-up is entirely familiar: in the near-distant future, the grimy, mistreated have-nots are poised to revolt against the haves. The twist is that they’re all on a not-very-long train, the only hospitable habitat in this futuristic Ice Age. Led by the sensible Curtis — well, as sensible as any leader of a revolution can be — the caboose-riders lie in wait for the opportune moment to ram their way to the front of The Snowpiercer.
First, though, Curtis and his impetuous buddy Edgar (Jamie Bell) need to retrieve a prisoner in hypersleep: the drug-addicted Namgoong Minsoo (frequent Bong-collaborator Song Kang-ho), who programmed all the electronic locks on the train. After an initial half-hour that monotonously establishes how dreary existence is for the train’s underclass, including the arbitrary kidnappings of the two small children, the entrance of the snarky, cantankerous Nam provides a much-needed breath of fresh air — ironic, given that the first thing he does after regaining consciousness for the first time in decades is to reach into his pocket for a carton of smokes. (Song speaks in Korean throughout, but most of the film’s dialogue is in English.)
Before joining Curtis’ cause, Nam awakens his adorable teenage daughter Yona (Ko Ah-sung) from her artificial slumber. Before she speaks her first word, she gives a long, loud belch. At last, a sign of life.
As the insurgents make their way toward the head of the train, Bong uses each new railcar to create a new set of challenges for Curtis and his fellow mutineers, not unlike leveling up in a video game. In the kitchen car, the rebels make a grotesque discovery about the bricks of black slime they’ve been eating, while in a carriage further ahead, they enter the dazzling aquarium (with adjoining sushi restaurant) enjoyed by the train’s privileged idlers.
The different cars allow Bong to devise several diverting, but not affecting, set pieces, chief among them a massive brawl brutally fought with axes and bayonets, and later a gratingly garish lesson-turned-massacre set in a sweetly poisonous kindergarten classroom.
Swinton’s Mason, trussed up like a bizarro-world Margaret Thatcher with coke-bottle glasses and horse dentures, serves as the emissary between Curtis and the train’s Oz-like conductor Wilford (played by a fine actor too pleasant a surprise to divulge here). Pinchedly intoning doom, the actress has never been more watchable, even if she seems to have teleported from a different film entirely.
Curtis and Mason flip the tables on each other a couple of times, but the film only becomes interesting when Curtis suddenly ceases to be the noble, level-headed leader he was initially presented as and reveals his true ruthless self. In a couple of instances, he commits deeds that instantly disqualify the character as just another Bruce Willis role, and later on, Curtis reveals even darker impulses from the past.
But Evans is so wooden throughout that those revelations provoke more disgust than compassion, and investing in him as the hero ultimately becomes a chore.
Which is fine, because the soul of “Snowpiercer” lies in the father-daughter relationship between Nam and Yona. While Curtis believes that he’s the protagonist of the story, Nam slyly devises his own plans on how this great train robbery will go. The character adds a satisfyingly complicated wrinkle to the plot and, as a bonus, it’s utterly refreshing to see Asian characters imbued with such depth and heart and hipness.
Curtis’ final scenes with Wilford gradually become interminable, and the tragic elements of the resolution are quickly dispensed with; you can almost feel the film shrugging off its numerous corpses. The rather surprising final shot manages to elicit some wonder and hope, but by then we’re as exhausted as the battle-worn characters.
In superlative previous films like “The Host” and “Mother,” Bong elevated, then transcended, the humble genres of the monster movie and the murder mystery by refashioning them into exquisitely heart-wrenching human drama. Disappointingly, then, his alchemical touch is absent here. “Snowpiercer” warms the heart, but doesn’t penetrate it.