' Cinema Romantico: Snowpiercer

Monday, July 14, 2014

Snowpiercer

Is it coincidence that in the year of our Lord 2014, two films chronicling all of mankind stuck aboard an ark, one based on Scripture, one based on a graphic novel, would be released, or is it kismet? Well, this is Cinema Romantico, of course, and so you know full well what I think. It’s quite clearly kismet, not merely a matter of “these things come in twos” (read: “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon”) but a reckoning at the film de cinema. Look no further than your current box office behemoth, “Transformers”, which heralds the “Age of Extinction” on the theater marquee. Has cinema chosen to punish man for the hubris of its collective sins, to openly opine whether God or Whomever has forsaken us, or to ask if we have been begging for this end of days for some time now? Perhaps, and yet Darren Aronofsky's “Noah”, released in March, in spite of its Old Testamentness, still retains that pre-ordained White Dove Optimism, which is why “Snowpiercer”, the English language debut of acclaimed Korean director Bong Joon-ho, in spite of being an action-adventure exercise as much as a socio-allegory, might actually, improbably, appropriately be even darker. Which makes it the perfect summer movie!!! (Wait, I might have just dredged up the wrong catchphrase. Nevertheless.)


Of course, as Genesis recounts, Noah's ark was commissioned by the Lord because the Lord was fed up with mankind's wicked, wicked ways and so He wished to flood the earth but keep a few people and a smattering of animals to re-populate the species once the waters subsided. In "Snowpiercer", the Lord is nowhere to be found. He apparently realized mankind had reached a self-annihilation point on its own; kick back on the celestial veranda and shake Your head while those you have created muck it all up. An attempt to snuff out global warming in the not-too-distant future before it takes us down for good (and oh to see the mockumentary about the election of the President who convinced enough of Congress to believe in climate change to fund this scientific endeavor) has obligatorily gone horrendously awry, triggering another Ice Age.

All of humanity has been killed off, save those who made it aboard a colossal train (“the rattling ark”), ensuring their survival, but doomed to ride in a perpetual circle on a track to nowhere expect for where they’ve already been for the rest of their lives. And that perpetual circle also reveals itself in the train's class system because what is the world if not a perpetual circle of the Haves vs. The Have Nots? Strand a dozen people on an elevator and a class system would emerge within ninety minutes.

To maximize empathy, "Snowpiercer" starts us in the rear with the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, dressed like more modern "Mad Max" extras and penned in like cattle, and fed about as well too. Curtis (Chris Evans, smartly downplaying) emerges as their General Washington-esque wrangler, understanding that the uprising against their fancy pants oppressors must be perfectly timed. And when they finally go, they continue to go, battling their way through locomotive car after locomotive car, a clever conceit that allows for an eternally evolving landscape. The further they progress, the more hedonistic the reverie, the more distant their own world becomes, and a scene in which they breach the compartment of a Berlin-esque techno club of debauchery is a modern day twist on the sequence in “A Night To Remember” when the steerage passengers aboard the Titanic breach the first class dining room.

Ah yes, the Titanic, everything in storytelling comes back to her. What was the Titanic, really, but the 1% vs. the 99%? (While we’re here, can’t you see Bernie Madoff dressing up as a woman and carrying his portfolio aboard a lifeboat?) And so much how the Titanic forevermore became a White Star Line metaphor regarding the classes, “Snowpiercer” yearns to turn its train into a metaphor for modern times.


Fictional retellings of the unsinkable ship often illustrate social castes obviously and clumsily. Even James Cameron’s version, which I love as much as anyone, is guilty, transitioning from the unlovable rich in the smoking room to the charming poor dancing below deck. And the well-heeled villains of “Snowpiercer” are not afforded much dimension, though perhaps Joon-ho believes their excess doesn’t leave much room for dimension. The 99ers, however, originally trumpeted as saints are slowly revealed as having sins of their own, partially in the security expert (Song Kang-ho) who craves drugs but especially in a bracing monologue deep into the film delivered by Curtis that seems to out our whole species, for richer or poorer, as nothing more than selfish survivors.

This idea is crystallized in the man known merely as Wilford, responsible for maintaining the train’s engine and, by extension, all of civilization. His eventual reveal both problematically grinds the movie to a halt, as exposition blooms in an elongated sequence recalling “The Matrix Reloaded”, and lets its message flower in full. This barreling locomotive is Wilford’s kingom and he is its god, and so maybe god is present throughout “Snowpiercer”, just in the way that men themselves like to play him. The Titanic has become the go-to allegory for mankind’s hubris and how the world that hubris has created will go under, leaving everyone regardless of class to thrash and freeze in its wake. That is why “Snowpiercer” turns out to be as much an oceanliner as an ark, a new century parable, if not potentially a foreteller of the beginning of the end – mankind’s hubris leaving us all to thrash and freeze in its wake.

Or maybe just be eaten by polar bears. God did create them first.

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