I’m not sure where the line is between a good gonzo movie and a creative mess, but I know that Snowpiercer is on the right side of it.
With the same giddy fervor he brought to the monster-movie genre in The Host, director Bong Joon-Ho here takes on the post-apocalyptic adventure. Snowpiercer is set some 17 years after the earth has frozen over. The lone survivors spend their days on an elaborately modified bullet train that makes an annual trip around the earth. The passengers are all alive, but some more than others. While the first-class riders essentially live in an upscale mall, those in the last few cars subsist mainly on regimentally delivered (and highly suspicious) “protein blocks.”
And so there’s a good dollop of social commentary here – especially for a time when the gap between the have-everythings and the rest of the world keeps growing – but mostly there are ingenious set pieces that balance gore, grim humor, action and slapstick in ways we rarely see at the movies.
The ingenious set pieces balance gore, grim humor, action and slapstick in ways we rarely see at the movies.
Consider the film’s signature sequence, in which a rebellious band of rear passengers, led by Chris Evans’ Curtis, tries to make their way to the engine but runs into a heavily armed battalion of guards in one of the middle cars. A gruesome melee ensues, including slow-motion shots of limbs being chopped off and more than one significant character getting killed. Yet when the train passes a landmark that indicates a year has gone by, all involved pause to cheerily wish each other “Happy New Year!” Then the fighting resumes.
Aside from Evans, the movie also features Octavia Spencer and Jamie Bell as fellow rebels and John Hurt as their aged leader, Gilliam (a nod perhaps to another gonzo director, Terry Gilliam, whose career has been a continual dance back and forth over that line I mentioned). Song Kang-ho, such a delight as the dim-witted dad in The Host, returns here as an amusingly blasé engineer whom Curtis bribes to help him get through the train’s various security doors.
Among the first-class passengers is Alison Pill as a pregnant assassin and a scene-stealing Tilda Swinton as Minister Mason, a go-between in fake buck teeth and 1980s librarian glasses who lectures the “freeloaders” as if they were unruly children. One of her particularly condescending speeches concludes, “You suffer from the misplaced optimism of the doomed.”
Like any madcap movie, Snowpiercer isn’t perfect. I wish the special effects had been up to the movie’s imagination – especially the glimpses we get of that icy Earth – and there’s no denying Bong loses his grip juggling the many moving pieces of the climax. But the very ambition exhibited in that finale is the engine on which the movie runs. At its best, this is gonzo gold.