SNOWPIERCER, Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s first English-language effort and the summer’s critical darling, is a dystopian parable set in the near future. Here’s the setup: Earth has been plunged into an extreme ice age after attempts at reversing climate change go catastrophically wrong. The planet’s few survivors are stuck on a train engineered to circumnavigate the planet once yearly. The train is divided between the rich in the head cars, “eating their steak dinners and listening to their string quartets,” and the impoverished denizens of the tail section, where food comes in oily purple “protein bars” and no one’s seen a change of clothes in years.
This is Bong’s second foray into the environmental disaster flick. His 2006 The Host, a clever and surprising film about a gigantic predatory catfish spawned by pollution in South Korea’s Han River, was less portentous than Snowpiercer and much wittier, a frenetic genre mash-up with a disarmingly eccentric sense of humor. (At one point the mutant fish — the size of a box truck — dives into the river among a handful of goofy paddleboats painted like cartoon fish, which bob about in its wake.) Snowpiercer, too, has moments of satirical wit, but it is mostly an incoherent slog, a tendentious allegory punctuated by overproduced fight scenes meant to be virtuosic but that are, in fact, merely busy — glossy object lessons in the asininity of action-movie convention. The entire movie looks, somehow, both very expensive and frustratingly cheap. The CGI sequences of the train hurtling through the Arctic landscape reminded me of animations from the video game Final Fantasy VII, which would have been impressive 17 years ago.
Snowpiercer is about class revolt, a theme whose timeliness has tricked critics into admiring it. (“Is revolution being hatched in the commercial cinema?” The New Yorker’s David Denby was moved to ask. No, David, it’s not.) The train’s immiserated underclass, provoked by squalid living conditions and the periodic stealing of their children (for predictably sinister reasons to be revealed at the film’s climax), rally behind Tanya (Octavia Spencer), whose child has been snatched; Edgar (Jamie Bell), a plucky young Cockney, or something; and Curtis (Chris Evans), the rebellion’s stoic leader. The trio liberates Namgoong (Song Kang-ho), an imprisoned drug addict who happens to have designed the train’s security system. In exchange for drugs, Namgoong will help the rebels open the doors as they advance up the train, discovering unsuspected luxuries (sushi! Bach!) and getting into bloody scuffles with the ruling class’s police force. The goal is to reach Wilford, the train’s engineer and evil leader, rumored to be at the very front. Along the way, Edgar, Tanya, and Curtis swing weapons and exchange occasional banter.
It’s a relief when Edgar is finally killed, as it allows Curtis, whose features are as inert as this whole bloated and tedious allegory, fewer excuses to talk. Has there ever been a well-known actor so pitifully without any of the requisite gifts as Evans? Apparently he mostly plays superheroes, which makes sense; his acting must benefit from masks. To be fair, he’s given some pretty hopeless material. Recounting to Namgoong the traumatic early days of life on the train, Curtis fights back tears (I think that’s what he’s doing) and asks, “You know what I hate about myself? I know what people taste like.” After several seconds of grimacing: “I know that babies taste best.” I laughed so hard I thought I’d be asked to leave the theater.
The exception to the general awfulness is Tilda Swinton, who plays Mason, Wilford’s ideological mouthpiece and enforcer. Swinton is made grotesque, squinting through granny glasses and frowning around big false teeth. She exercises her authority with kooky sadism. Mason’s message is simple, a version of Menenius’s “belly” speech in Coriolanus: everyone has their place, and to disrupt the order is to court disaster: “We must all of us on this train of life remain in our allotted station. […] Would you wear a shoe on your head?” Joan Didion once accused Dr. Strangelove of being “essentially a one-line gag” and, as such, overlong. “Kubrick,” she wrote, “should have started counting the minutes until it would begin to pall.” Snowpiercer is longer than Strangelove, and its gag is thinner — half a line, let’s say, and rather murkily delivered. And Bong’s no Kubrick. But in Swinton he has something like Strangelove’s Peter Sellers. Only when she’s onscreen does Snowpiercer completely hold one’s attention.
The supporting cast boasts a number of other good turns. There’s Vlad Ivanov, who plays an implacable and apparently unkillable assassin, a big man in a gray suit with a machine gun. Lurching along on his murderous way, Ivanov looks like Christopher Hitchens the morning after a bender, which is menace enough for me. Alison Pill, as a schoolteacher to the children of the rich (her job is to brainwash them with propaganda songs such as “What happens if the engine stops? We all freeze and die”), is terrific, by turns winsome and vicious. And as Wilford, Ed Harris is as good as you’d expect him to be.
But not good enough. Snowpiercer wouldn’t, really, be worth writing about at all, except that a number of prominent critics — and not just David Denby — seem inexplicably convinced of its virtues. Over at Slate, Dana Stevens gushes that Snowpiercer “seems to have been sent back to us from some distant alternate future where grandiose summer action movies can also be lovingly crafted, thematically ambitious works of art.” Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, whose headline touts Snowpiercer as the “movie of the year,” likewise discovers a triumph of artistic integrity over the crass demands of Hollywood: “After an extended battle with Harvey Weinstein, who wanted to make extensive cuts in Snowpiercer to make it more accessible to American audiences, the director’s approved 126-minute version will be the only one released in the United States.” Weinstein should have been allowed his cuts — the thing would at least have been shorter.
Len Gutkin is a PhD candidate in the English Department at Yale. He has written for Bookforum, Democracy, and jacket2, among other venues; his scholarly articles are forthcoming in ELH: English Literary History and Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies.