Friday, August 22, 2014

Snowpiercer Review!

Snowpiercer, you incredible beast. Why can’t I get this movie out of my brain!? I’ll tell you why; because Snowpiercer is the best thing I have seen all year. I just want to watch it over and over again because I am sure there are things that I’ve missed and are hidden through out the film.

Snowpiercer takes place in a world where a failed attempt to kerb global warming has resulted in the on-set of an ice age. All life, all human life, has been extinguished save for those who had made it onto a self-sustaining train that operates on an annual loop. The Bong Joon-ho directed film follows Curtis (Chris Evans) and his fellow allies at the back of the train as they struggle for equality with those at the front of the train.

The film is beautiful, brutal and at times unexpected.

Follow me under the cut for an examination of this fantastic film. I’ll warn before moving to spoilers!
The thing that struck me the most about Snowpiercer is its ability to straddle the old and the new. The old being a concept of apocalypse and class structure, the new being it’s intermingling with beauty, sorrow and humanity. Snowpiercer threads together a world both foreign and all too familiar. Ideas of social justice are addled with drugs, deceit and despair. And yet, in between there is a real tangible sense of hope too. That perhaps humanity can rise above this and invent itself anew, not unlike the way this self-sustaining arc of life was invented.

The cast are simply stunning. Chris Evans is fantastic as the reluctant leader of the rebellion, Curtis. His performance shifts through compassion and sacrifice as well as doubt and fear. There are moments where his abilities in fighting are beautifully depicted and for the most part, his intimidating physique is hidden behind layers of clothes and grime that tell the story of those languishing at the back of the train. He was so convincing, my husband didn’t realise who the actor was until the very end of the film.

John Hurt, although his character had far less screen time, was as always, supremely adept at selling the cause and selling compassion. His charisma is astounding and his ability to form a collective around him utterly believable.

Tilda Swinton’s Minister Mason was truly memorable. The conviction and zelous with which she punishes those beneath her and proclaims her indoctrinated faith to the creator of the train Wilford, is the personification of the very idea of who the people at the front of the train are. Given that we don’t see a lot of those people, her role is pivotal in allowing us to understand the stark difference between those we sympathise with and what they are fighting for. Her speech to those at the back of the train as she punishes a man with the loss of an arm whilst telling the people that they should know their rightful place as the shoes of society, is fantastic and gruesome.

The film plays with themes of excess, illustrating the vast differences between the haves and the have nots and the ways in which those with more justify treating those at the back of the train as if they were not human. Those at the front devise a sort of religious worship of Wilford, naming him their divine saviour and demonstrating their desire to believe in something more than their existence and to save their souls from the reprehensible acts that they inflict on those at the back.

The brutality of the violence sets the film apart from the gratuitous nature with which a lot of television and film currently treats violence. It’s realistic and simple in its execution and therefore felt all the more acutely by the audience. There’s very little that is cartoonish about the carnage, it all feels real and necessary.

This film is not like others in any predictable sense either. The plot weaves through characters as they move through gates from the back of the train towards the front, seeking either an overhaul of the system or for their loved ones to be returned to them. In this sense, we see people sacrifice themselves for a cause they believe in as distinctly different from those who believe in a person or in the people around them. It’s at various times moving and confronting and there is plenty to suggest that there is a hefty price to pay for overhaul of the system.

In many ways, this is perhaps one of the greatest or most realistic telling’s of a rebellion in fiction. The cause is not without losses and redirections. The beliefs of our characters are constantly challenged and new equilibriums established. In the end, the only possible real solution presents itself wordlessly in the snow.

If you have read up to this point, I really suggest you go see this film. It’s fantastic and deserves all of the critical acclaim it is getting. If it’s not yet available in your city, I suggest you petition to have it there. Luna Leederville here in Perth succeeded in such a campaign and resulted in us getting to see this in its uncut glory.

If you have seen the film or are okay with spoilers, please keep reading.

For me, the point at which it became clear that this film was different and was telling a very different kind of story happened in the car full of armed men in balaclavas. These men brandished sharpened weapons and threateningly gutted a fish in the faces of those in the rebellion, ready to exact the same onto the men before them without further thought. Minister Mason being present and gleefully watching on indicated perhaps some confidence or knowledge of the massacre that was about to take place. Although the rebellion fought bravely, it was revealed that the train was about to pass through a tunnel; the rebellion was about to be slaughtered.

Curtis is saved during this fight by Edgar, his second in command and seemingly his best friend on the train. The two are like brothers. A child is called who lights a flame and more men run with torches to the front to help kerb the slaughter and here is where things get really interesting. Edgar is caught by one of Minister Mason’s men while Mason herself is wounded and escaping. As Curtis makes an attempt to stop her, he becomes aware that Edgar is captured and that if he does not surrender, Edgar will be killed. Pained, he looks Edgar in the eye and then turns away from him to pursue Mason. In that moment, one would be forgiven for thinking that surely, Edgar would get away, but he is killed in slow motion, as Curtis must surely have felt it. The sacrifices of an over throw of a system come with huge costs to those who fight it and believe in the cause. Edgar however, seemed to believe more in Curtis and really looked like he expected his friend to help him. It was heartbreaking. 

In the middle of the film, we are shocked again when we are faced with the almost complete annihilation of our heroes. John Hurt’s Gilliam is executed and Curtis and his small group of supporters who are leading the charge are almost all killed at once. Usually, one would expect to have them picked off one by one, perhaps as they face each gate and carriage, some would have a glorious send off, some last words, but this doesn’t happen. Many are killed simultaneously. Luke Pasqualino’s Grey, is killed for the cause when he puts his hand between Curtis and a knife. He is then hurled against a wall and the knife, still in his hand, is pushed slowly through his chest. It’s distressing to watch and again, very different to Edgar’s death.

As the remaining survivors, Curtis, Namgoong Minsu and Yona make their way through carriage after carriage of people indulging in the excess of life; I was struck by the similarities to the Districts in the Hunger Games. These people busy themselves with hair and make-up with extravagant clothes and drugs and parties while the people at the back of the train with barely any room subsist on protein bars made of smashed up bugs. They live with festering wounds while people at the front bathe in heated pools and gossip. The similarities are perhaps stark because they mirror our own existence in the differences between classes and countries; these carriages seem like different worlds. 

Curtis tells a story to Namgoong at the final gate to Wildford’s chamber and it is another astounding scene in this film. He tells Namgoong that he hates that he knows what human beings taste like and that he knows that babies are the tastiest. He tells the story of a mother and baby who were hiding in the back of the train in those early days and who were hunted down by starving passengers. The mother was murdered and the baby about to become food when the leader of the group was confronted by another man who took a knife and cut off his own arm and told them to eat it but spare the baby. Curtis tells Namgoong that, as he might have guessed, the man who cut off his own arm to save the child was Gilliam. The child was Edgar. And the man who was about to eat the child was Curtis himself. It’s a stunning and horrific revelation in a myriad of ways. Suddenly, Curtis’ belief in Gilliam takes on more weight and meaning, as well as his belief in humanity and in the cause. He acutely understands how this situation makes beasts of men, makes them lose their humanity. It also adds another layer to the importance of his decision to allow Edgar to die; the child that was saved being sacrificed for the cause is a very big deal.

As if this all wasn’t enough, Curtis says that for those months at the back of the train, without food, many people took Gilliam’s example and scarified limbs so that other people could eat. He tried to cut his own arm off and couldn’t do it. Our hero is characterised here as both weak in some respects and a villain in others. He rounds out what it means to be human and makes us question our beliefs, both in the world and in him. It’s another brutal truth to the severity of the situation that they have found themselves in for the last 18 years.

Once Curtis is invited into Wilford’s engine room, things get soul-crushing. I was seriously at the point where I didn’t think anything worse or more despair inducing could happen but I was mistaken. Wilford tells Curtis that this has all been an orchestrated exercise in population control. That Gilliam was part of this ruse and that he understood that for everyone to survive, many needed to be periodically sacrificed. That every so often, those at the front orchestrate a culling of those in the back to ensure that the energy and food etc. are maintained for those alive. It’s also the reason there will always be a back of the train. The parallel to our world and our society is nauseating. Wilford tells Curtis that this is a closed environment and therefore, everything needs to be meticulously controlled, including the level of fear and anxiety experienced by a large percentage of the population. Curtis is the first person to walk the full length of the train, from the very back to the engine room, which makes him perfect to fulfil the role that both Wilford and Gilliam had set for him; to become Wilford’s successor. They believed that he would see how balanced the system needed to be and that nothing about the system could be changed if the human race was to survive. To drive home Curtis’ complete helplessness in all of this, Wilford orders the execution of the remainder of the percentage to be removed from the back of the train while Curtis sits at the front, powerless to stop it. Again, our hero cannot save the day or win in the way that has been sold to us from the beginning.

Curtis is very nearly broken when Yona rushes into the room and lifts a plate in the floor. It is revealed that the little children who were snatched from their parents and taken to the front of the train have been used as spare parts to keep the train running and have been for some time. The children spend most of their youth inside the train itself, in cramped holes, making it run. They are completely broken and conditioned to sacrifice themselves for the train’s survival. Unable to abide this, Curtis breaks from his despair and tries to save little Timmy from a life inside the train. He sacrifices his arm, jamming it into the cogs of the train to get the boy out. His story comes beautifully full circle and justifies, in some ways, his inability to sacrifice his arm in the past.

Yona and Namgoong light the fuse to a bomb on the outer gate, convinced that as they have watched the ice melt over the years, the ice age is perhaps easing and maybe people could survive outside of the train. Of course, the gate to Wilford’s room and the engine will not seal and we watch as Namgoong and Curtis hug Yona and Timmy between them. The train derails and crashes, leaving the viewer with very little doubt that not many of those on board could have survived. The charred bodies of Curtis and Namgoong are pushed aside and Yona and Timmy have survived. They walk out into the snow and see a polar bear, perhaps signifying that life always survives as long as the will is there.

This is perhaps one of the most beautiful and deep moments in the film and a fitting end to the story arc of political struggle and system upheaval. Curtis couldn’t live with the old system or some derivative there of, because it was destroying humanity. Yes, life, human life, was surviving, but at what cost to humanity and what makes humans special. It makes sense that the first two people to step off the train post the Curtis revolution were people who had never known the previous world. They were born on the train and had only heard stories. Their whole existence was bound in only the train world, not in the world the people on the train had previously come from. In addition, the whole system, the train, had to be completely destroyed without any further thought to how human kind might move forward, for a true revolution to have taken place. There is quite literally, no going back to how things were. Perhaps this completely new generation of humans on Earth will not only find a way to survive and prosper, but might even change the way that civilisation structures itself, given the knowledge of the past. This is always humanities hope; to be better.

All up a riveting and wonderfully crafted film that I am sure everyone can find something enriching in. It works fantastically as a pure action film and as a political commentary.

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