PRINT Summer 2014


Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer

Bong Joon-ho, Snowpiercer, 2013, 35 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 126 minutes. From left: Curtis (Chris Evans), Mason (Tilda Swinton), Andrew (Ewen Bremner), and Tanya (Octavia Spencer).

WITH CALAMITIES (economic, ecological) in the news almost every day, the “imagination of disaster,” to cite Susan Sontag’s still-influential 1965 essay on science-fiction films, has been showing signs of exhaustion lately—maybe since 2006. That year (pre–global financial crisis, pre-Fukushima, etc.) witnessed the premiere of The Host, Bong Joon-ho’s third, and most successful, feature, a nimble update of the monster movies popular in the 1950s and ’60s that managed to be a potent, scary, and often funny eco-parable. The seeds of Bong’s fifth film, the dystopian epic Snowpiercer, reportedly took root during preproduction for The Host, when the South Korean director discovered the French graphic-novel series Le Transperceniege, which debuted in 1982 (and provides the movie its name). Yet despite some innovative set pieces, Bong’s latest, recalling several other contemporary postapocalyptic spectacles, suggests just how redundant the genre has become.

Bong’s adaptation, whose script he wrote with Kelly Masterson, is his first film in English and boasts a large international, multiracial cast. Unlike recent end-of-days extravanganzas—films such as last year’s Elysium and Oblivion, which are, as Ed Halter astutely noted on this magazine’s website last December, “the most expensive movies in existence, products of the same turbo-capitalism that has pushed us past the point of no return”—Snowpiercer was made completely outside the Hollywood-studio dispensation (its majority producer is the South Korean company CJ Entertainment). Still, Bong’s film is often weighed down by the same thudding obviousness that defines these bigger-budget productions.

The first dispiriting evidence of this is the fact that Snowpiercer’s hero, Curtis, is played by Chris Evans—Captain America himself. The actor’s blandly handsome mug may be concealed somewhat by a coating of grime and a survivalist’s beard, his character made slightly more complex by a bit of unsavory backstory revealed later in the film, but Evans/Curtis is still immediately recognizable for his bro-y confidence and mantras. “We control the engine, we control the world,” he tells his fellow passengers crammed into the tail section of the Snowpiercer, a train that must perpetually circuit the planet to preserve the only survivors of an environmental catastrophe—pointedly occurring in 2014 and caused by the ill-conceived release of artificial coolants to counteract global warming—that plunged earth into deep freeze, destroying all life.

It has been seventeen years since this ice holocaust began, and Curtis and the sooty hordes condemned to the caboose are ready to revolt. To carry out their insurrection, they will need to advance car by car—and class bracket by class bracket—to the locomotive. Perhaps an audacious conceit when the source material was published more than three decades ago, this socioeconomic hierarchy fails to stir much surprise or indignation; the stratification onboard the Snowpiercer won’t even scan as allegory to anyone who’s booked a seat on a commercial flight in the past few years. Additionally, Bong’s film shares with the Hunger Games movie franchise—particularly its first installment, from 2012—a heavy reliance on a retro-futurist/steampunk aesthetic to distinguish the factions of its class warfare: Curtis and his prole compatriots, garbed in Oliver Twist’s dun-colored hand-me-downs, versus the depraved Day-Glo clubbers in one of the more luxe sections of the train. There’s something overly familiar, too, in the types of amenities available to the vehicle’s cosseted passengers, conjuring, as they do, those enjoyed by Elysium’s superelite (and by any actual inhabitant of the 10065 zip code).

What sets Bong’s project apart from its near coevals is that its action is restricted almost exclusively to this narrow moving vehicle. But the confined space doesn’t limit the director’s skill in mounting the film’s battle sequences, many of which, particularly a night-vision-shot melee, are staged with impressive coherence. And Bong’s gift for seizing spectators with completely unexpected moments, like the odd solo alfresco dance that opens Mother (2009), is still evident on occasion here, as when a floorboard is lifted to reveal horrific labor practices. Yet even these triumphs are vitiated by awful dialogue. Octavia Spencer, as one of the intifadists, is saddled, like most black actors in science-fiction films, with risible pseudo–jive talk (“Hell, yeah! Wind that shit up”). Ed Harris, as the diabolical tycoon who invented the train, and the wearying Tilda Swinton, as his adjutant, repeat “preordained position” to ever-diminishing effect—in a film that is nothing but overdetermined.

Snowpiercer, which makes its New York premiere at BAMcinemaFest on June 25, will open in the US in limited release on June 27.

Melissa Anderson is a frequent contributor to Artforum and