Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Snowpiercer (2014): The Faults in the System

Snowpiercer (2014)
dir: Bong Joon-Ho

The capitalist system has faults. It's a fact. Every pure ideological system has faults in it, especially when you take the human factor into account. The human urge for tribalism, as well as the human urge for natural selection both factor heavily into the capitalist system's faults.

As such, Snowpiercer isn't just an allegory for capitalism, so much as it is an allegory for every caste system that has ever been set up.

The set-up for Snowpiercer comes from modern times. There is an extremely long train that was built to continuously moves around a series of interconnected railways on an annual circuit around the Eurasian hemisphere. After it was built, the corporations decided to try to combat climate change by launching a chemical into the atmosphere, sending the Earth into an Ice Age, where the only thing that seems to have survived is this train.

The train is set up as a caste system. The rear of the train are the poor people, who have to eat protein bars that look like black Jell-O bricks. They live in squalor and tight quarters with bunk beds and poor lighting. The front of the train are the rich people, who are, according to the poor people, getting to eat steaks and live like kings. At the very front is the engine, where the leader rules the whole train from front to back.

The train runs on a perpetual motion engine, and so there is little to do but sit and wait. The poor people have sex and children, and wait around until the guards come in to give them their food. Now and then, the guards will take two children up front, and periodically scour the back for people to work with the front people. One such resident is a violinist, who is forcibly separated from his wife to live life in the front to play violin for the rich people. Two children are forcibly taken from their parents at the beginning of the film, for reasons not explained to anybody. When the poor start to revolt, the guards take one of the passengers and freezes his arm by setting it outside the window and then shattering it off.

Even though the poor don't work, and didn't pay to be on the train, the conditions are so insufferable that a revolt would always be bound to happen. Spurred on by Gilliam (John Hurt), Curtis (Chris Evans) and his side kick Edgar (Jamie Bell) lead a revolt to take over the engine, going through the various trains that get increasingly classier and more decadent as they get closer to the engine. Along the way, they fight guards and big bosses on several occasions, much like a video game.

Which brings us to the first problem of Snowpiercer. The fighting sequences are not that good. I know I've been a bit spoiled by The Raid, but the fighting sequences start out afflicted with shaky cam, and with an inability to discern who was fighting who, or where anybody was. Joon-Ho, who previously directed the suspenseful The Host, has very little grasp on how to direct a fighting sequence when there are too many people involved in the fight. The camera is all over the place, the editing is strange, and the people are indiscernible. Plus, the timing of the scenes are off. As the movie goes on, and there are fewer and fewer people to deal with, Joon-Ho's direction gets slightly better, but the initial rebellion, the axe sequence, and even a little bit of the classroom sequence are all fraught with problems that seem to dissipate by the sauna sequence.

The set-up for Snowpiercer isn't subtle in its intentions. Anybody paying attention to politics anywhere should be able to parse out Joon-Ho's political statements with a flinch of the eye. But, Snowpiercer is far more nuanced than one might give it credit for. It asks questions about food supply in closed systems. It asks questions about overpopulation, and slave labor. It asks questions about political indoctrination and obedience. Most of all, it asks questions about idealism and intent.

To say that Snowpiercer is a gung-ho radical "take over the system" movie is to deny it the whole final act it has been working towards. In the final act of Snowpiercer, Boon-Ho decimates all the ideology that he has been building up for the first 100 minutes of the film. For 100 minutes, Boon-Ho gives the microphone to the Occupy movement, essentially. The poor. The ones who have been oppressed. But, in the last 20, he gives it to the leader. The 1%. The owner of the train. The builder. And the controller of the engine. And in the final 3, he ends with the most radical note in an already very radical movie.

There are flaws in Snowpiercer. A lot of them, in fact. The fighting is the most major one, in my opinion. The score swings between not bad to HAAAAAANS ZIMMMMMER boring. The elements in the allegory don't always hold up to real world equivalents, or do so in much more minute/subtler ways. A simultaneous flaw and also benefit is that Snowpiercer doesn't answer all the questions it raises. The emotional climax is played too earnestly. And, there are a lot of weird techniques that seem to draw attention to themselves for illogical reasons.

Much like the ice formations that build on the tracks, the flaws in Snowpiercer present merely elements that jar the movie, but never completely derail it. The pacing and visuals of Snowpiercer outside the fight sequences are spectacular, the tension is top notch, and the acting is completely aces. Tilda Swinton practically steals the show with her imitation of Margaret Thatcher, and Evans is perfectly capable of most of the scenes in Snowpiercer, with one major exception towards the end.

Snowpiercer gives both action movie thrills, and intelligent fodder to chew on for days. Modern caste systems, constant rebellion, the justification on either side, and how it could be applicable or not to modern society are all topics that aren't left with answers, and the most dangerous answer is still in the movie, which ends with a note of hope and promise. The allegorical fodder makes Snowpiercer a Required Viewing, even though it has some deep flaws throughout the film.

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