Snowpiercer opens on a world under siege.
The earth has been decimated by climate change, stranding what remains of humanity on a train. The survivors are divided into the haves and the have-nots, the front of the train against the back of the train—all ruled with grim rigidity by a distant dictator. The heroes of Bong Joon-ho’s film are exploited, exhausted, overworked, and overpopulated. They’re desperate for change without much idea of what change would entail.
If they look familiar, well, it might not just be the recent popularity of the genre that’s triggering your collective memory.
If the 20th century in the United States was characterized by growth, power, and an almost willful ignorance to the storms brewing around the edges of the American Dream, then the new millennia brought the rain.
First there was 9/11. Then Katrina. Then the recession. Our unpopular and unending interventions in the Middle East brought nothing but instability. Our priests are being arrested for child abuse, and entitled men are shooting up our schools. We’ve caught our government torturing its enemies, spying on its citizens, and defaulting on its bills, but our biggest protests have been in hashtags, not in the streets.
Every principle, good and bad, that made up America’s identity has been called into question over the last two decades—the promise for prosperity, democracy, faith, family, nature, patriarchy, heterosexuality, manifest destiny. The United States doesn’t need science fiction like Snowpiercer to see the nature of apocalypse—if we want to see the end of days all we have to do is look around.
In short, the United States is having a bit of an existential crisis, and no one, not even Hollywood, has been exempt.
Hollywood has always been the American dream factory, and as our dreams have gotten darker, so has our entertainment. We’re still telling stories about heroes and the battles between good and evil, but now our heroes come with qualifiers. Our televisions sing the song of the antihero—Tony Soprano, Stringer Bell, Don Draper, Walter White, and we hail its realism without ever wondering if the boob tube is just telling us what we want to hear: there is no soul that is incorruptible, nothing good that is pure.
Meanwhile our movie theaters have become temples for superheroes—in the absence of God, Hollywood has offered us a new deity. Superhero God is noble. He takes his job very seriously. He offers helpfully bite-sized sermons about personal responsibility. He’s the physical incarnation of human perfection, but he’s much too dignified to have sex. Sometimes Superhero God has to destroy cities to save them, but the destruction he wreaks is always done in the interest of the greater good. The superhero genre has never been less entertaining, but we still call it escapism because we can’t believe in goodness or grace any other way.
However, Hollywood’s business is not limited to mythmaking. Even as the heroes of our blockbusters seek to defend us from the great dangers of our universe, Hollywood isn’t quite willing to put a name on those threats. Talking openly about climate change might upset the evangelicals, talking about terrorism might upset the moderates, and not even the government is ready to talk about government.
In the interest of maintaining their four quadrant appeal Hollywood has built a new world order where Superhero God is always visible, but the devil is only revealed in suggestion. They’ve ushered in an age of anxiety where the only panacea is the continued consumption of their fantasy products.
But if blockbusters have become the new church, filled with equal parts reverence and guilt—then Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer blasts through the door with the exuberance of a bat out of hell.
After a decade of films where the world is constantly careening towards destruction only to be saved at the last minute by a nonexistent superhuman, there is something oddly freeing about watching a movie where the earth is already destroyed, and the freedom of the genre is amplified by Bong’s self-described disconnection with the self-serious tendencies of modern science fiction. “I don’t think it was really possible to be conscious about trends because of all the pockets of time that the process took place in,” he tells me.
It’s certainly true that Snowpiercer has had a roundabout journey from its inception to theaters. Based on a French graphic novel written in the 1980s, Snowpiercer was produced in 2012 in South Korea, starring American, British, and Korean actors. While it’s now receiving an international release in 2014, the film carries none of the burden that seems to weigh down our superheroes.
On the contrary, Snowpiercer approaches its post-apocalyptic dilemma with what can only be described as glee.
Just as our heroes, led by Captain America himself Chris Evans, burst out of their proletariat prison at the back of the train and set the plot in motion, Bong’s style seems to burst from the chains of Chris Nolan-approved brown and gray into glorious color. Bong lists the Pixar film WALL-E as one of the reference points for his vision of Snowpiercer, and though Snowpiercer is considerably more violent—Bong calls the film Bodypiercer— the journey to first class shares WALL-E’s childlike sense of wonder.
To borrow from another of cinema’s great fantasies, if we’re Dorothy, then Snowpiercer is our Oz, and Tilda Swinton is our Scarecrow, our Tin Man, and our Cowardly Lion all at once.
On paper Swinton’s role as Mason, the liaison between the front of the train and the back, would seem to be pretty cut and dry. In the hands of a lessor actor, she might have even seemed like an exposition machine. But Swinton is incapable of being anything less than mesmerizing. Every word and every gesture in her hands is an opportunity, and she relishes each one of them with palpable delight. Keeping a movie this big this light on its feet can’t be an easy job, but Swinton and Bong make a formidable team. He does the heavy lifting, and she passes it off with a sleight of hand.
Their efforts pay off. Snowpiercer has brains and politics to spare, but more importantly Snowpiercer is fun. There’s a scene that takes place in a schoolroom between Swinton and an equally game Allison Pill that very well might be the funniest ten minutes in an action movie since Ghostbusters.
After a decade of wondering who sucked all the personality out of the action movie, Snowpiercer feels like a defibrillator—just the electric shock the genre needed to get back to what it was meant to be.
Bong has made a movie where the action itself is propulsive—we want to watch our heroes beat the system because we want to see where Bong will take us. It’s the same kind of simple pleasure that comes from watching silly shows like Let’s Make A Deal. What’s behind Door Number 1? What spectacle is waiting for us in the next train car?
It helps that Bong is a master choreographer of space and action. The fight sequences in this film are inventive, exciting, and legitimately scary, with a real sense of danger only offered nowadays by HBO’s Game of Thrones. There is never a moment where you can be totally sure of what will happen, how the enemy will attack, or who will survive, and the suspense bonds us to our leads and their mission infinitely more than the self-serious sense of duty that seems to motivate most of today’s superhero movies.
This isn’t the first time Bong Joon-ho has thrown himself into the politics of genre filmmaking. He broke onto the scene in 2007 with The Host, a monster movie with bite in more ways than one. But ask him about his political intentions with his films, and he deflects.
“There’s a political message, sure,” he says. “But really that’s all supposed to be just brief thoughts that cross your mind on the subway home. The real point of spending all this money and assembling this crew is really to create cinematic tension and suspense and beauty for the two hours that the audience is sitting in the dark.”
Message heard loud and clear. Sometimes beauty is politics enough.