May

19

 SNOWPIERCER

A new Bong Joon-ho is in the offing. Chilling news for his aficionados.

SNOWPIERCER takes place in 2031, 17 years supposedly after the world has become so intolerably warm that scientists, in a bid for immortality and man\kind's enduring thanks, have manufactured a substance that can cool us down. Alas. The coolant does such a bang-up job that the Earth freezes, and nearly all life ends.

The dystopic SNOWPIERCER begins on an infernally lengthy train bearing the last remnants of living beings. The hellish conditions aboard the train, run by a perpetual motion engine in the very front of this grim, dun-covered ark of humanity's remains, are what we see first, and for the better part of an hour.

A class system has clearly evolved, though the resident passengers we see and empathize with are not fully apprised of how deep go the class divisions. In a status-cleaving that to this reviewer echoes the horrors of the DPRK and its starving, abused Korean populace, the abused inmate/inhabitants of the back of the train are given 'protein' gel bars–rubbery black yuckiness incarnate. But it is all there is, they think.

Every face of every passenger/inmate is filthy, and many of those present have a peculiar lack of limbs, cut off from above the elbow, or only one leg. Like the inmates of the Concentration camps, the luckless riders are herded and forced into attendance cadres, rank upon rank. Those failing to sit or stand on command meet the bark of the visiting uppers, threatened with machine guns.

It becomes clear that the rulers of the train, who carefully avoid any nomenclature that would delineate their role as overseers and dispensers of goods or otherwise, come from "the front" of the train. They arbitrarily punish the grungy mass of leftover humanity, remove those of their children that are particularly appealing, and on occasion simply shoot those who get out of hand. The worthier privileged are safely in front, near water and real protein, real coats, real beds. Rebellion, revolution, dissatisfaction rive the back-people, while their betters are imperturbable, save for the slightest contact needed to scrape off the cutest young and raise them for their pleasure.

Stalwart Chris Evans, in black beard and hair, shies from becoming the leader of a desperately needed insurgency. He has all his limbs as well as that profoundly handsome profile. A wise elder, one who has been clipped by the overlords, judging by the evidence of his iron peg-leg and ratty attire, is John Hurt, who tries to appeal to the reckless or intrepid to fight for more, to "go to the front."

Tilda Swinton, in a star turn, represents one of the privileged frontpeople, but her PR-polished body language and out of touch backpedaling words seem to imply comfort and all-is-well, despite the evidence to the contrary. She is a feast of eccentricity, bizarre in her white Nehru-like suiting, her pinned-back russet hair, her outsize wide-mouthed assertions meant to comfort that all will work out. She is the bromide. But the crowd does not buy her threat-laced brand of propitiation, denial, awkward well-intentioned there-there's.

The film proceeds to depict the car by car revolution, the fight-back thugs who shoot randomly and ferociously at the men and few women braving the advancing train cars.

We see the evident transmutation from brutish environs to whimsical gardens, schoolrooms taught by the amusing and serpent-like Alison Pill as agenda-driven instructor of the brainwashed children in her command. Pill's bright, wide, even innocuous face is a denial of the seething mission of her teaching duties. We see the water-cars, central to the continuation of life aboard the rushing train. Gardens cars. Club cars and their dissolute druggies and drinkers, their elegant fashionistas and stewards. We see windows, and the thin sun through the glass that is denied the backmost cars, the groundlings revolting from their wallpurgisnacht lives. We are sickened by the evident madness of the train's "chef," whose base material for the gelatinous bilge the back-people are provided appears to be nauseating dead ingredients too vile to identify. Better, the rebels realize, not to ask, or peer too long into the cauldron of muck.

And so it goes, with axe fights and gunfire and resistance and unsparing ghoulishness, they advance, losing many. There are many casualties along the route. We pass cities mantled in icy towers and peaks of global warming—ha—unlived and unlivable.

And there is the always-intriguing Ed Harris, the soignée plutocrat's plutocrat, again in a position of major manipulator, as he was in TRUMAN. Asian action is engaged in the persons of 'hero-warriors' Ah-sung Ko, Kang-ho Song, and Steve Park. And tough Octavia Spencer fights along with the men for her liberty.

For some, this bleak dystopia might be too wrenching to stomach. To be fair, many reviewers, fans of award-winning Korean Bong Joon-ho (The Host [2006]; Mother [2009]; Memories of Murder [2003]) were not turned off by all the gore and mayhem, as this is, as many now know, par for the course with Bong. Tarantino, that understated maestro of idyllic serenity and uncomplicated amatory delights, considers Bong works "masterpieces." The passage of the film, like the unspooling of a similar negative utopia, ELYSIUM, from 2013, is not hard to predict. Fight the evil overlords! Claim one's rights, better conditions, real food. There is little suspense, frankly. One watches it all unroll, but there is not that doomy foretell spasm we so enjoy in the true masterwork. But perhaps fanboys of this director, and this genre, clearly know the ground-rules, and suspense and surprise are not foremost on the menu.

In the end, it was fairly evident that this was a parable on the horrors of closed societies, and as Bong is Korean, North Korea seemed the logical target of his venomous saga of denials, revolution and take-over.

The time frame disturbs, as it is only 17 years hence. Is this North Korea or another dictatorship of abysms, is it the future of the United States, with well-meant but unsupported non-science propelling the train of state to a desperate catastrophic end? Or is it a tale of lefty economic upheaval/rebellion?


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