Countless filmmakers have entered into legendary battles with industrial powers about the value of retaining final cut, but few modern examples have generated the media brouhaha surrounding the U.S. release of Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer.” The Korean director’s adaptation of Jacques Lob’s comic book, which ran between 1984 and 2000 (but only received an English translation earlier this year) opened in several territories during the last several months while distributor Harvey Weinstein became embroiled in a public spat with Bong over the movie’s alleged two-and-a-half hour running time (though Bong’s completed version is actually 125 minutes).
While Weinstein reportedly wanted to snip 20 minutes and tag on a voiceover to the sprawling futuristic action story, by the time “Snowpiercer” arrived at the Berlin International Film Festival, the pair had reached a compromise: The length that Bong wanted will remain for its upcoming opening, while the company downgraded the scale of its release strategy. Having taken umbrage at the suggestion that American audiences would find Bong’s hefty narrative hard to take, fans of the Korean director (a sophisticated genre-based storyteller whose credits include allegorical monster movie “The Host” and the similarly lengthy crime drama “Memories of a Murder”) were sated by the news.
It’s easy to root for an artist’s battle to realize his intentions, but “Snowpiercer” isn’t one of Terrence Malick’s cosmic visions. A wild, fast-paced action drama loaded with countless mythological ingredients and a massive cast of international stars, Bong’s biggest production to date is also the most broadly appealing in his filmography — at least in theory. But after all the hype, does “Snowpiercer” deliver the goods promised by its uncut edition? That depends on how one chooses to take it in: Unquestionably cluttered and meandering when viewed as a single chunk of storytelling, “Snowpiercer” nevertheless has the feel of a complex, inspired work in tune with its innovative milieu.
Set in the year 2031, “Snowpiercer” establishes the decline of civilization over its opening credits: Following chemical warfare, the planet has frozen over, leaving the last remaining survivors of mankind aboard the eponymous train. As the Snowpiercer ceaselessly churns around the frozen country on a year-round cycle, its inhabitants lead disparate lifestyles tied to their placement in the vehicle — those near the front live comfortably, while the tail-end dwellers struggle under a horribly impoverished existence monitored by oppressive guards. Lob’s epic tale unfolded across a much longer time period, but Bong’s treatment is practically a real-time endeavor, chronicling attempts by tail-end insurgents to hijack the front of the train and overtake its cryptic mastermind, a largely unseen presence named Wilford.
Much of its exposition takes place in close quarters, as the would-be revolutionaries push through one train car after another, with the occasional CGI-sweetened exterior shots to remind us of the snowy outdoors. It’s a unique cinematic challenge by a director known for squeezing genre ingredients into unexpected scenarios, though never before with this degree of ambition. The events in “Snowpiercer” unfold in a remarkably contained environment for a pop culture achievement produced on this scale. Given its forward momentum, it’s hard to imagine the movie working with a significantly truncated running time, since its length and content go hand in hand — anything shorter and you’d lose several train cars’ worth of developments. Not a premise that fits easily into any constraints, “Snowpiercer” is weirdly all over the place, but remains constantly enjoyable as it barrels forward.
Those familiar with the comic book will find a vastly different riff on its basic scenario. Lob’s story (written during the later years of its serialized publication by Benjamin Legrand) took the form of black-and-white drawings with a gritty look in the tradition of Will Eisner’s graphic novels, while matching their sense of despair: The conditions of the tail-end survivors form a clear-cut metaphor for Holocaust trains. Its first half took constituted a romance between a middle class activist fighting for the rights of tail-end fighters, one of whom eventually assumes control of the train’s all-powerful engine. Bong’s take on the situation, co-scripted by Kelly Masterson (“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”) is at once less complicated and more unruly, littered with vivid colors and eccentric details.
While Bong’s movies are typically anchored in a greater degree of credibility than his contemporaries Kim Jee-woon and Park Chan-wook (the latter is a producer here), “Snowpiercer” reflects the expressive aspects found in all of their works as well as many others, with its dystopian elements echoing countless precedents — from “Brazil” (there’s even a newly developed character slyly named Gilliam) to “Mad Max” and “The Matrix,” as well as the mother of them all, George Orwell’s “1984.” Without equally their clean designs, Bong capably channels elements from each of these works.
However, “Snowpiercer” has plenty of unique ingredients of its own, from the constant chatter about the train’s “sacred engine” to lower classes’ unruly diet of black “protein” bricks and a conspiracy that finds the authorities kidnapping children from the back of the train for unknown reasons. Gritting his teeth in the heat of this oppression, tail-end dweller Curtis (Chris Evans, burying his chiseled Captain America visage under a Wolverine-like beard) plots an uprising with his cohort Edgar (Jamie Bell), a disparaged mother (Octavia Spencer) and the stately Gilliam (John Hurt, in a characteristically wizardly turn).
Threatened by the tail-end’s smarmy overseer Mason (Tilda Swinton, as a wonderfully flamboyant, power-hungry lunatic), the group plans a march forward in the opening segment that establishes their movement for the rest of the movie. As they steadily advance toward Wilford (eventually played with menacing calm by Ed Harris), “Snowpiercer” alternates between bloody showdowns and imaginative depictions of the train’s various compartments, including an active aquarium to supply its sushi bar and a classroom filled with brainwashed children.
Among this ever-expanding ensemble, Swinton stands out as its most original and persistently amusing creation (though Alison Pill, as a loony propaganda instructor, gets a fleeting chance to show her own psychotic extremes). Evans plays the pouty hero by hitting the usual tough guy beats. But his significance is balanced off with the arrival of a drug-addled Korean engineer (Kang-ho Song) and his daughter (Ah-sung Ko), who was born on the train and thus complete’s the story’s metaphorical intentions.
Through her perspective, Bong develops a keen analysis of activist desire traveling from one generation to the next. That’s the insightful auteur’s imprint shining through: The “Godzilla”-like invader of the director’s only other effects-heavy fable, “The Host,” provided a vessel for satirizing institutional reactions to disease. Likewise, “Snowpiercer” assails societal oppression with a singular metaphor — although it’s emphasized with a cartoonish glee not found in Bong’s other work. The occasionally campy ingredients in “Snowpiercer” weaken its overall impact, but just as often they give the movie a persistently odd allure that makes it notably more liberated than other futuristic spectacles produced on this scale.
With so many different settings for the diverse plot, “Snowpiercer” never suffers from issues of length; in fact, it benefits from the opportunity to give various segments room to breath. The group’s final confrontation with Wilford forms the movie’s last half hour, rather than being crammed into its closing minutes, and the actual climax effectively stuffs everything preceding it into an impressively streamlined montage. Needless to say, despite its innumerable moving parts, “Snowpiercer” lands on coherent ground.
Even so, it’s a bumpy trip getting there. Certainly weaker as a whole than any of Bong’s previous movies, “Snowpiercer” suffers from strange loose ends (including a random side plot involving one character’s prophetic abilities dropped almost as quickly as it comes up) in addition to abrupt shifts in tone: at first a dark tale of lower class unrest, it later turns into a bright satire, punctuated by wacky shootouts and other assorted combat, before finally returning to its pensive beginnings. Bong and Masterson’s screenplay contains a spectrum of monologues that alternate between profundity and silliness.
But those same fluctuating qualities also yield a riveting experience. Unapologetically long and messy, “Snowpiercer” offers an unhinged ride that’s worth the investment for its mixture of batty personalities, consistently impressive visuals and mad swipes at heavy symbolism jam-packed together. Bong must know the nature of the beast he has created: At one point near the end, Wilford describes the train’s artificial world as “a blockbuster production with a devilishly unpredictable plot.” Neatly compartmentalized but dense with volatility, the train is a metaphor for the movie’s own lively, multifaceted existence.
Criticwire Grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? While no U.S. release date has been announced, the current limited release bodes well for the movie’s box office returns, given the combination of star power, genre hooks and fandom already in play (as well as the existing global box office returns).Its VOD performance should be equally strong.