SNOWPIERCER is one of the more innovative and inspiring action films that I’ve seen in a very long time, and that includes anything this summer has brought us or anything in the last few years. In my opinion, Bong Joon-Ho’s adaptation of the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige is an achievement in modern filmmaking. The problem is that most people won’t see the film or if they do, don’t know what the hype is all about.
The film is all based inside a high-speed, non-stopping train in a post-apocalyptic world where society and class has been clearly established within these connected cars. It’s pretty simple: the poor in the back, the rich and powerful in the front. But like we’d expect, the poor, who are mistreated, underfed, malnourished, and disrespected constantly, are fed up and are willing to fight to take over.
This simple but underused plot device and structure provides a moving and thrilling journey for our protagonist Curtis Everett, played by the impressive Chris Evans, and his small but loyal and useful band of rebels. It’s rounded out by an always spectacular Tilda Swinton and the best role Allison Pill has done in her young career. The film moves level by level, opening doors to new and odd environments that constantly put these characters and the audience in an uncomfortable and mysterious position.
This narrative alone is a satisfying take, and would work for any escapist entertainment, but there’s so much more to SNOWPIERCER than what’s transpiring on screen (or VOD…). As these survivors keeping moving and inch closer to the desired engine room, the film has taken us on this integrated adventure of violence, confusion, and tragedy. And that’s something that I think most people have forgotten about why SNOWPIERCER works so well. The best films are the ones that make the audience experience a wide range of emotions. Laughter, joy, depression, sadness, anger, etc. This kind of tactic in bringing out all these different reactions is what keeps the audience wanting more, giving most of the audience, an unaware sense of need and motivation to keep watching. It tells us that this is something different. We don’t know what to expect. When movies can deliver such a vast amount of emotions and reactions, it’s saying something within us that is one of the strongest connections a film and audience can make: originality.
The feeling of seeing something original is one of the purest experiences you’ll have in cinema. It’s being unable to put a finger on a film, relating it to a specific something else where you can guess where it’s headed and what’s going to happen. This happens in almost every film now, especially the big summer blockbusters or action films where they try to do everything EXCEPT be original. But when you’re watching something that illicit all these different reactions within you, and you’re unable to figure out what’s going to happen next, that’s when you experience originality because you can’t figure out where you’ve seen this before. You can’t pinpoint your past film knowledge or narratives, and all you’re really aware of now is what’s happening in front of you. That’s movie magic. That’s what movies are about.
This is attempted a lot on independent projects, where writers and directors are taking major narrative and plot risks to provide something “original”, but outside a few, most of them eventually fall back into the comfort of redundancy, and though it doesn’t damage the overall film, it does soften your overall impression and wonder what it could’ve been. But let’s be honest here: originality is unimaginably difficult. To be original in the creative sense, especially in cinema, is almost nearly impossible because things like inspiration, story, characters, these are prior notions we’re given by… yes, other films and stories. So what we may think is original is actually been inspired by something we’ve seen or read before, and unintentionally we’ve become a cliche piece of work that has become unfortunately predictable.
Now I want to ask you, my few readers, what film reminds you of SNOWPIERCER? Ready? Go.
Thought of any? Now if any of you have brought up train action films like Unstoppable or Under Siege 2, then I need you to stop thinking. Yes, they’re on a train, but that’s like comparing GAME OF THRONES and HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON as similar stories just because they have dragons, or ALIEN and E.T. cause they have aliens. No, no, no. Let’s really think. And if you’ve really thought about it, there’s really not much that comes to mind. The only film that I can kind of get a similar feel for is The Matrix or The Matrix Reloaded, but it’s only because it has an underlying genius behind it that many didn’t get or refuse to understand.
SNOWPIERCER is a really, really, really smart movie, and I don’t think people are giving it enough credit for being such. If you’ve watched any of Bong Joon-Ho’s films (The Host, Mother, Memories of Murder), you know this guy is a special talent, and to take SNOWPIERCER as on-the-nose summer action film is to do him and his film injustice. Outside of his ability to create mystery and throw at us something new and unknown in so many different ways, his depth and subtext is what really wowed me.
The biggest idea or theme that Bong Joon-Ho seemed to really go after is this idea of purpose vs. pointlessness. Positivity vs. negativity. Gloom vs. hope. I don’t want to give away much or spoil anything for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, but this struggle between these two vastly different mindsets and emotions is at the core what SNOWPIERCER is all about. We have these highly motivated group of people trying to overturn the train in favor for them, but near the end of the film, the question of why is thrown out there. “What are we trying to accomplish?” “What will happen if we do take over?” “Will anything change” They’re on a non-stop train that circles the globe, but there is no final destination. There moving but in reality, they’re absolutely still. It reflects a lot about how Bong might feel about “progression in society” and if there is such a thing, but it’s all within the mindset, it’s all about what we perceive or see (as by the ending).
It’s an attitude that we rarely ever seen in an action film, especially now, and it should be celebrated for it’s ballsiness and ambition. Now I’ve read and seen some reactions to SNOWPIERCER, much of the negativity stemming from “I don’t get the hype”. And yes, films are subjective, and the hype machine can definitely kill a first time viewing, but I beg of you to give these kinds of films another chance. My biggest problem with today’s audience is that we complain about the movies we’re getting today, but yet we only support the same crap we complain about. You go pay for the big blockbusters, and then won’t see or will watch on the internet the stories that deserve your $10-$15 ticket. I have no problems with people spending money on super heroes or disaster films, but if that’s what you like, okay fine. But if you’re complaining about it, critiquing it, and finding it repulsive and annoying, but only spend and support films like that, then you’re the problem too.
Audiences have just as much say as the executives and studios, and they will only make movies that they know audiences will watch. So when you pay to watch an all white-cast, complain about a lack of diversity in Hollywood, and then put your money again for a film that only casts white people then your money speaks louder than your mouth. if you pay for a mindless action film, raise issues with a lack of story, characters, or depth, and then the next movie you watch in theaters is another mindless action film… See the cyclical problem?
I know it seems like I kind of have gone on a tangent, but I think it’s all related. When I read or hear about a few thoughts on SNOWPIERCER, it kind of just amplifies the current problem of movie-going audiences today. We’re not willing to spend our money on characters, originality, strong narrative or structure, and art, but on spectacle. Spectacle is great, but only if the foundation of it relies on sound storytelling.
SNOWPIERCER is a film that demands your full attention, a heightened awareness, and a focus that’s zoomed in one thing only. That’s how it’s supposed to be anyways. When you watch a movie, give to the movie completely, not just half or a little. No filmmaker ever said I only want 50% or 75% of your attention. They want it all, and if you give films like SNOWPIERCER a chance, I promise your experience will be much better if you actually care and dive into it. That’s why cinema exists.