by Matt J. Popham
The avalanche of praise that has been heaped upon Joon-ho Bong’s pseudo-political, sci-fi spectacle, SNOWPIERCER, is a depressing barometer of how starved moviegoers are for something that, even if only superficially, stands out from the oppressive onslaught of Hollywood’s formulaic action offerings, and an even more depressing demonstration of how a steady diet of cinematic nothing dulls discrimination and taste.
A clattering, dystopian rattletrap, SNOWPIERCER takes its title from its setting: a massive train designed to carry what’s left of mankind through the uninhabitable post-apocalyptic wasteland that was once human civilization. Imagined by Bong and co-writer Kelly Masterson as a wealth gap on wheels, the train is a horizontal hierarchy of haves and have-nots, where the wealthy while away the end times in first-class opulence, while the poor are confined to conditions that make steerage look luxurious. We follow the exploits of the exploited who, fed up with being underfed, have decided to fight back. Battling their way forward, from the rear of the train towards the perpetually powered engine at its front, in each consecutive car, they find themselves confronted with increased reactionary resistance and increasingly troubling revelations. If it sounds like a compelling idea, it is. But none of SNOWPIERCER’s ideas – nor its narrative, themes, or characters – ever get fully fleshed out. Disjointedly cobbled together from a boneyard of readily recognizable forebears (a helping of Metropolis, here… A bit of Brazil, there…), but channeling none of their intricacy or intellect (even its allegedly socio-political subtext is thin enough that it could just as easily be read as dumbed-down John Zerzan as dumbed-down Marx), it fails to take on a life of its own, never rising above slight, slapdash homage.
Bong keeps the action chugging along at a good clip, while doing his best to dress SNOWPIERCER’s emaciated frame in a lot of eye-catching flourishes, but while the film is well-paced and boasts a number of stylish sequences, it’s never quite enough to distract us from its derivative, mechanical feel. As the door opens on each new rail car, our rush of excitement at the first striking image of its interior quickly devolves into a feeling of missed opportunity. For all the attention given to scenic detail, the Snowpiercer never feels like an immersive world, just an impressive set. And as we travel through it, neither we – nor our main characters – are given the opportunity to really be affected by what we find. It’s not so much that Bong moves too fast, as that his focus always seems to be in the wrong place: prioritizing visual flare and visceral thrill over intellectual or emotional impact, focusing on clever peripheral details rather than incorporating them into the action, lingering on aesthetically pleasing blood spatters while character deaths are drained of significance. Throughout, he seems more invested in his admittedly adept technique than in the story or the characters his technique should be made to serve.
To make matters worse, while most of the top-tier cast, from a sly John Hurt to an almost inappropriately riotous Tilda Swinton, succeeds in pumping some blood into the anemic proceedings, the otherwise energetic ensemble is weighed down by a tragically miscast Chris Evans, whose lifeless lead performance as reluctant revolutionary leader, Curtis, creates a vacuum at the film’s heart that cannot be filled. Evans’ boyish demeanor and blank look allow him to imbue his Captain America with an innocent charm, but they only undercut Curtis’ quiet guilt and wounded self-doubt, making them seem like little more than petulant affectations. Even his revealing monologue, delivered near the film’s climax, about the atrocities he’s seen and suffered is too little, too late, and ultimately, too limp to win us over.
In the end, Snowpiercer, the train, is an ideal allegory for SNOWPIERCER, the film: an efficiently engineered vehicle whose conductor is more concerned with its carefully calibrated machinery than its human inhabitants. Sleek, stylish, and mercifully swift, this flashy fable of a little uprising that could is distracting enough, but it’s hardly as radical or refreshing as its adherents would have you believe. Once the flurries of hyperbole have melted away, what’s left is little more than a mildly entertaining carnival ride. Sorry, but I’m not onboard.