At last, the solemn apocalyptic ice is broken—the best way to play the end of the world on screen has to be comedy or a holiday-themed film. (Surely, when the end comes, we'll get the day off.) Our informed society has treated the scientific forecasts about climate change with contempt and derision, so why should that reckless energy not ripple across the screen?
The most bracing and liberating thing about Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer is not just its lyrical forward motion, but the exuberance with which the film revels in its plot predicament. It’s as if the unfortunate shooting of the Archduke and his good wife in Sarajevo nearly a hundred years ago was part of a Buster Keaton knockabout, with Buster playing Gavrilo Princip. (Historians on that grave day will see the point in this casting suggestion, for, in fact, Princip got his shots in almost by accident after what had been a frustrating day.) I know, the world paid a woeful price for a bit of muddled slapstick, and that was not a good thing. But what else does the world deserve? That’s the insouciance that drives Snowpiercer.
More or less, the plot is like this: Inspired by great anxiety over global warming, the authorities have shot an arrow in the air—it could be a death ray, a mystery rocket, or a magical bird—but, alas, in overkill, it has brought about a new ice age. Life has become extinct, save for an impassioned locomotive, the “Snowpiercer,” that is on some endless circling track, hurtling along at top speed so that it can shatter any ice in its way. Yes, it’s silly, but Joon-ho Bong has handled it all with toy trains and child-like backdrops of lavish snows which seem slung together for a few hundred dollars, but which possess a charm and wonder that might have been missing from a big American production.
This all comes from a graphic novel, Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette. I cannot judge the accuracy of the translation, but I have no doubt over its high spirits or the confidence with which the picture cuts away to delirious shots of this sturdy locomotive that could tunnel its way through the white and the cold.
The real action is on board the train. Its many carriages are a model of social hierarchy: the poor, the deprived, and the hungry are at the back (they are fed slabs of leather-hued “protein,” which is made out of … well, better you discover that recipe on your own). As the train advances, military police separate the poor from the rich and powerful, all the way to the club-car of the master of the train, Wilford. His empire is evidenced by a mighty “W” insignia wherever you look—though if you have mischief in your soul, that W may remind you of the logo for the Weinstein company, which happens to be distributing this merry Korean fable. No, Wilford is not played by Harvey Weinstein himself—we can’t have everything, and we are getting so much. Instead we have one of Ed Harris’s wintry pessimists, as pioneered in The Truman Show.
Of course, the poor—as led by Chris Evans, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, and Jamie Bell—plan revolution. What else are you going to do in a film like this? Get to the front of the train and you may exchange the protein slabs for steak and a good claret. And so, through means familiar in action films, and with much airy violence (though it is not a cruel film), we see a lovely progression of design set-pieces (in the hands of Ondrej Nekvasil, who did The Illusionist and “Missing” on television) as the insurrection surges through barracks compartments to a schoolroom, a night club, a pool, all the way to Wilford’s abode. There’s a verve and humor in this décor that bespeaks a talented director—and I should add that Joon-ho Bong’s previous work includes Mother, which is a naturalistic and deeply touching film about … well you know what that title’s about.
Snowpiercer knows it needs to keep the loco moving, as it takes us through the many different worlds on board the train. But it has another trump card. Early on, a spokesperson, Mason, comes from Wilford to address the poor masses. She is a vile grotesque who wears brown fur over a mauve dress and then a sour-milk-colored suit. She is gawky, prim, bossy, spiteful, in a drab wig, false teeth, and archaic spectacles. As a cross between officious post-mistress and reticent dominatrix, she is hilarious, and she is Tilda Swinton, plainly basing her character on several awful women from British politics of the last few decades (with a Birmingham accent). Swinton has a range of lofty looks that easily make her iconic, if not godlike. She is also capable of playing grungy realism and heartbreak. But at last pictures are beginning to grasp the point of having her do antic comedy. She made an amusing, melancholy vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive—I treasure her exclamation, as one corpse dissolves in a toxic bath: “That’s very visual.” She is the life and soul of this riotous party, and you will be sad to see her disposed of, no matter that Mason’s ghastly manner has earned it.
But there’s always the train. From the very earliest days—when the Lumière brothers filmed a friendly steam engine drawing into a station and some Parisians ran out of the salon with playful screams—movies have cherished these bully-boy vehicles. Do you recall Hitchcock making an enclosed world there—The Lady Vanishes, Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest? Think of the train that is taken apart in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Dream of Keaton in The General or Clint Eastwood riding an engine into a saloon in Joe Kidd. Then there’s Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train and the hellbent rapture of Denzel Washington and Chris Pine trying to brake the runaway in Tony Scott’s Unstoppable. In Renoir’s La Bete Humaine, the locomotive is the metaphor for derailing passion. The idea of a camera mounted on a moving train is as promising as any motif in film history. It comes to this: As and when the world ends, one might as well be on a train watching the last of the world as it whips by. Somehow farfetched stories and dumb dialogue float off in the steamy thrust of a loco.
As an American picture, with Tom Cruise or Mark Wahlberg in the Chris Evans role, Snowpiercer might have cost $150 million and suffered from SERIOUS, BORING MESSAGE overload. Joon-ho Bong did it for less than $40 million and kept up the tease. I hope Tilda got as much of that budget as possible. Every train deserves its wicked witch.