I’m sure you already know Harvey Weinstein as an A-list producer, notorious for his ability to distribute and promote movies to Oscar-winning results, but you may be less familiar with Harvey Weinstein the editor.
It seems that Weinstein’s reputation has really gone to his head in recent years, since he’s made some very controversial moves with his newer acquisitions. A key example is The Grandmaster, which was promoted and released by the Weinstein Brothers in 2013. After Harvey cut 22 minutes from the film and added a few title cards, apparently because he didn’t think Americans would accept the film as it was. Why he bothered purchasing the distribution rights to a film so badly in need of tampering to begin with, I have no idea.
Cut to a year later. Or rather, flash back to 2012, when the Weinsteins bought the distribution rights for Snowpiercer. Though the film was made in Korea and adapted from a French graphic novel, it still starred Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, and Ed Harris, all actors that American audiences would assuredly pay good money to see. Oh, and the film was shot pretty much entirely in English, I think that bears mentioning.
But that wasn’t enough for old Harvey. No, he decided that American audiences would still need 20 minutes trimmed from the two-hour runtime, with a voice-over prologue and epilogue added. Director Bong Joon-Ho refused to cut the film, and managed to release it overseas to huge critical acclaim anyway. So Harvey, further cementing his new reputation as an egotistical prick, scaled back his American distribution plans until the film debuted a couple weeks ago — two years after the Weinstein Brothers purchased the distribution rights, remember — in a grand total of eight locations nationwide. As of this writing, the film has only expanded to 150 theaters after intense popular demand.
So if you ever get the chance to see Snowpiercer — and to be clear, I strongly recommend seeing it as quickly as possible — don’t forget to stick a big fat middle finger to the screen when the Weinstein Company logo comes up.
The story begins… well, now, actually. The opening news clips state that July of 2014 is when the nations of the world finally took drastic action against global warming. The plan was to disperse a chemical called C-W7 into the atmosphere, lowering the average global temperature to a more manageable degree.
Sound stupid? Well, it worked. In fact, it worked too well.
The planet has been plunged into a new Ice Age, destroying all life as we know it. The only known survivors are on board the eponymous Snowpiercer, a highly advanced train with its own self-sustaining ecosystem and an engine that could (supposedly) run forever. The story goes that the reclusive genius Wilford started building the train as a luxury vacation liner, but turned it into Wilford’s Ark when he saw that the C-W7 plan wouldn’t work. Then again, the Snowpiercer and its creator have both reached such godlike status that any history lessons on the subject are dubious at best.
The train has several compartments, each with its own purpose. I won’t go into too much detail about the layout (Why spoil the fun?), but suffice to say that the wealthiest and most influential passengers live in luxury near the front of the train. The poorest passengers live in squalor at the back of the train.
The socioeconomic stratification goes from there, but the long and short of it is that “front of the train” = “snooty upper crust who will murder to maintain power” = “bad.” Similarly, “back of the train” = “exploited masses” = “good.” Though there are times when this binary logic starts to break down and show a bit of nuance, it mostly serves to the film’s detriment.
A key example is Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), a crony who works to keep the unwashed masses in line. Unfortunately, Swinton plays her as a stupid, snivelling, blustery toad with outsized glasses and a mouth that seems to protrude past her nose. I get that the film needed comic relief, and the character serves that purpose just fine. Unfortunately, when a key antagonist of the film is reduced to such a cartoonish figure, it doesn’t exactly help the film to look intelligent. Similar complaints could be made against Allison Pill, who chews up all the colorful scenery in sight as a schoolteacher who might have been dropped on her head as a child.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have our protagonist. There have been a few notable revolutions in the Snowpiercer’s 17-year history, but Curtis (Chris Evans) wants to make one more try at charging to the front. This time, he’s received word from an anonymous source near the front about Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song), a security engineer with the knowledge to open every gate in the train, and he’s being held as a prisoner in a rear compartment. Unfortunately, Nam and his daughter (a possible young empath named Yona, played by Ah-sung Ko) are addicted to Kronol, an industrial byproduct that’s also a potent narcotic.
Other notable revolutionaries include Gilliam (John Hurt), who serves as Curtis’ mentor and the de facto leader of the train’s tail; Edgar (Jamie Bell), Curtis’ hot-headed protege; and Tanya (Octavia Spencer), whose child was one of many taken to the front of the train for some unspecified reason.
Yes, people from the front of the train can just go to the back and abduct children with no questions asked and no fucks given. The morality is painted in strokes that broad. At first.
See, the fact remains that we’re dealing with an armed revolution after the apocalypse. These are the last human beings left, and Curtis (who’s the good guy, remember) is leading them to slaughter each other. Does life suck at the back of the train? Hell yeah. Do the people who live there have a right to complain? Absolutely. But would death be preferable to a life of poverty and starvation, with the knowledge that anything and anyone you hold dear could be taken away without warning? You tell me.
Now let’s look at things from the other side of the train. The simple fact is that the train is a closed ecosystem, which means that the population and its resources have to constantly be held in check. People have to be killed off for the species as a whole to survive, and that’s all there is to it. That said, if a world can only survive from continued acts of unspeakable evil, is that a world worth saving? How many would have to die until we draw the line and say that the system is totally wrong? This is hardly a new question (Cabin in the Woods springs to mind), but it’s definitely one worth asking.
Some pretty deep questions, no? Well, if it ever gets too complicated, just remember that Wilford steals children. That simple black-and-white issue is what it all comes down to, really.
This brings me to another key theme of the movie. Wilford is revered as a god on this train, yet he seems to have “a thing” for children. Curtis is respected as a leader and a role model among his people, but Curtis has committed atrocities that (in his mind) make him unworthy to hold any real power. And Gilliam? Well, aside from his advancing age and missing limbs, we’re eventually given reason to believe that the old chieftain has a few dark secrets of his own. Oh, and let’s not forget the genius Nam, who was brilliant enough to help build the Snowpiercer even though he and his daughter are hooked on drugs.
Over and over again, the movie asserts that there are no superhumans, only humans. Every single one of us is fallible and flawed, especially those we put in authority. If the film has a thesis statement, it’s that humans are not yet ready to be gods. Hell, if humanity didn’t have the hubris to try and “fix” the planet, the whole global snowpocalypse would never have happened in the first place.
On a final note, those at the front of the train are depicted as so heavily reliant on the status quo that they would rather watch the whole world burn than see the system disrupted. I really want to brush this off as some impossibly exaggerated comic book villain bullshit, but then I look at the world around me and I wonder how great the exaggeration really is.
Moving on from the story, let’s talk about the cast. I’ve already talked about Tilda Swinton and Allison Pill, who gamely play exaggerated characters for the sake of comedy. Compare that to the Korean actors, both of whom would have been far more memorable if they had pushed their performances just a hair more. I’m just saying, they might have made a couple of drug addicts more twitchy and eccentric. And while I’m on the subject, maybe we could’ve had an explanation for why there’s a budding psychic on this train? That might’ve been nice.
John Hurt, Ed Harris, Octavia Spencer, and Jamie Bell all do fine, but that’s mostly because they’re giving the kind of performances that their careers were already built on. Last but not least is Chris Evans, who proves beyond a doubt that he’s more than just Captain America. The basic concept of a reluctant leader with a tortured past is so cliched that it could easily have fallen flat in anyone else’s hands, but Evans does a fine job of selling it.
Of course, the real star of this picture is Bong Joon-Ho. For one thing, if you know anything about Korean filmmakers, then you know they don’t tend to be shy about violence. This movie is no exception, with bloody and brutal action scenes throughout. The lighting and set design also deserve mention, simply because of how much variety the filmmakers were able to find while setting their film in a narrow metal tube.
Of course, each compartment has its own unique flavor and the sets get more colorful the closer we get to the front, but the creativity goes beyond that. Even when we’re in the back of the train, we get a few symbolically relevant splashes of color (and I’m not just talking about the blood). Better yet, the windows of the train are very extensively used to change up the lighting as night changes into day, the train passes under a tunnel, and so on. But my personal favorite moment comes when the dark train gets lit up by torchlight. Fire in itself has an unpredictable and vivid quality to it, but compound that with an action scene lit by so many moving torches and the result looks dazzling.
Snowpiercer is hardly a perfect film, but even its worst flaws are far from dealbreakers. There are some great intellectual themes at play, despite the occasional comically simple reduction, and the action scenes alone are well worth the price of admission. The all-star cast anchored by a sterling Chris Evans performance doesn’t hurt, either.
The highest compliment I can pay this film is that I can’t think of a single moment that would improve the overall film if it was cut. I strongly encourage you to seek this film out if you can, and I strongly encourage any filmmakers out there (especially foreign filmmakers) to stay the fuck away from Harvey Weinstein.