We Failed This Film is a series about underrated films that simply didn’t receive the love they deserved upon initial release. For the 20th entry, we’re boarding the eternal engine to outlast the apocalypse in Bong Joon-ho’s stunning, complex and innovative Snowpiercer.
How We Failed It
My close friends and I refer to Bong Joon-ho as part of what we call the “South Korean Holy Trinity of Filmmakers”, the other two being Park Chan-wook and Kim Jee-woon. This century has seen a boom of incredible films come out of South Korea, with any by the three aforementioned filmmakers becoming must-sees in my book. Eventually, each would each transition to the international stage and deliver their English-language debuts, as Hollywood wanted a piece of their undeniable talent. Park delivered with 2013’s mystifying gem Stoker, and Kim came through with the bonkers and insanely fun Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner The Last Stand. The final installment of this little excursion came with Bong’s Snowpiercer, an adaptation of the French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige” and a film that was arguably the most ambitious of the three, and certainly the most doomed.
Snowpiercer takes place in 2031, 17 years after a failed experiment to combat global warming has left the planet frozen and uninhabitable, and the remnants of humanity live aboard a train that circles the globe. A hierarchy and unjust class system has been set in place, and Curtis (Chris Evans) leads a revolution with others from the tail end of the train to break security systems expert Namgoong Minsoo (Song Kang-ho) and his clairvoyant daughter Yona (Ko Ah-sung) out of prison. The goal is to take the engine room, overthrow the power system and dethrone the self-deified conductor, Wilford (a bit of casting I’ll leave blank if you haven’t seen it yet, as it’s a wonderful surprise).
The tragedy is that everything started off so well for Snowpiercer. It’s almost unbelievable that Bong received $40 million to make a film as unique and uncompromised as this, but through some miracle of international sales and investments, he did. In late 2012, based off just the script and some test footage, Harvey Weinstein excitedly purchased the domestic distribution rights for the film and promised a wide theatrical release. When it came time to deliver in 2014, though, he backed out. This is where the failure happens. He wanted Bong to cut 20 minutes out of the film and provide opening and closing narration, essentially diluting and cheapening a piece of work that had already been cooked to perfection. Bong refused to make these changes, and thank God he did, as his cut is a masterful one.
Weinstein eventually relented and allowed Bong’s cut to be released, but he did so under incredibly greedy and selfish conditions: Snowpiercer wouldn’t get a wide release, but an incredibly limited one just out of spite. The film was shifted over to Radius-TWC, The Weinstein Company’s indie film arm that specialized in small theatrical releases and VOD. To their credit, Radius was handed what they were told to keep hush-hush, but they turned Snowpiercer into a small VOD hit of around $6 million on the format and got the film out there as much as they could. Still, the film’s widest release was only 356 theaters, but it still scored a surprisingly large $4.5 million off that small window. Now take that number and just imagine how much more it could have made, how much more of a cultural impact it could have had in a wide release. Financially, Weinstein was willing to shoot himself in the foot just to make a point when he didn’t get his way. He had an absolute smash on his hands and did nothing with it — like a child not getting to play with the toy it wants. Just for proof of the film’s financial viability, Snowpiercer had already grossed $80 million in foreign markets BEFORE an American release. Also, let’s not forget that Captain America was leading this film, so it had a bankable star. Snowpiercer was already a hit and had the potential to be so much more. It deserved to be the unlikely surprise gem of the summer and could have easily been. So while an $86 million worldwide theatrical gross is nothing to be ashamed of, it’s disappointing when Snowpiercer had the potential to be double that if not for one man’s shameful ego.
It’s not as if the critical reaction was lacking either, as most were rightfully in love with Snowpiercer. Keith Phipps wrote “Snowpiercer succeeds where last year’s Elysium fell short. Projecting the problems of today into a science-fiction tomorrow, it also ties them to a compelling story that keeps shifting under its characters’ feet. The characters shift in turn, and the finale gives its devil his due by letting Snowpiercer’s mastermind (a bit of casting better left unrevealed) argue the rightness of his decisions. Bong stages the action scenes beautifully, particularly a gunfight that unfolds as the train rounds a curve. Working from a script he co-wrote with Kelly Masterson (Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead), he handles the headier elements just as well, creating a graceful marriage of thoughtfulness, oversized ideas, and cringe-inducing bloodletting. It would have been a shame had Bong not successfully fought against the release of a shorter version. To work, Snowpiercer needs to feel like a journey. In its present form, it’s an exhausting, exhilarating, meaningful trip with many troubling sights along the way, and no easy answers at the end.
Peter Sobczynski praised Bong’s achievement: “From a visual perspective, Snowpiercer is never less than stunning as it provides thrilling images ranging from the desolate landscape outside (complete with the occasional body still frozen in mid-step) to a full-size aquarium with beauty that is outdone only by its implausibility. Despite the close quarters, Bong also comes up with a number of inventively-staged action sequences, the most memorable of which include a first-person look at a savage brawl in a completely dark car as seen through a pair of night-vision glasses and a visit to a classroom run by a teacher (Alison Pill) with an unexpected lesson plan. From a dramatic standpoint, the film is equally effective in the way that it includes the expected pulpy thrills and weirdo humor but also some unexpectedly affecting dramatic moments. There is one moment in which a character remarks that, because of conditions on the train, ‘I know what people taste like and I know babies taste best.’ It sounds like a sick joke but the line is delivered with the utmost seriousness, and, because we care about who is saying it, it turns out to be an unexpectedly powerful moment of human drama amidst the chaos. Likewise, the film’s final shot is impressive in the way that it suggests triumph and potential terror at the same time.”
Grantland’s Wesley Morris dug into the ideology of the work: “American popular culture is skittish about discussing social class and even more terrified about dramatizing the outgrowths of class dissatisfaction. It’s as if the haves who pump out our entertainment don’t want to show human have-nots rattling their cages. Sometimes you get a thoughtful allegory, like the current reincarnation of the Planet of the Apes movies, or a real surprise like Captain Phillips. But the shocking achievement of a show like Orange Is the New Black is its gentle but unrelenting dramatization of class struggle, even — or perhaps especially — in someplace like a women’s prison. The inmates demand their humanity. Snowpiercer is more diagrammatic about what it’s up to. It’s an action movie. The plot proceeds like a philosophical game. But the image of the film’s great unwashed swaying in unison as the train rocks along the track is a chilling one. To get a movie like this, one that works, near the height of summer feels good. Bong keeps his sick, sideways approach to comedy, yet this isn’t a cheap, happy movie. It’s a downbeat spectacle. But very good, unforgettably bizarre, original filmmaking and adventurously explored ideas can leave you feeling high, especially when you don’t know quite how it’s been pulled off. Ingenuity is part of it. The rest just seems like grim magic.”
While the quality of the work will always outlast any box office amount, it’s such a shame that Snowpiercer was selfishly muted the way it was upon U.S. release, diminishing its chances to exponentially find audiences. Speaking as someone who was lucky enough to catch this immediate classic in theaters, it deserved to be seen on the largest cinematic format possible. The fact that such an opportunity was denied to so many is a crime.
Why It’s Great
Only so often, and seemingly once a generation, do we get films as singularly unique as Snowpiercer. There are so many bizarre little touches, moments and images that go unexplained in the film, yet they don’t have to be explained. Before a big fight, soldiers wet their axes in the blood of a fish. Namgoong and Yona are addicted to smelly rocks called Kronole, initially helping Curtis just to get high. People in the back of the train survive on gelatin protein bars — don’t ask what they’re made of. In the middle of a bloody and brutal battle, everyone stops to recite a cheerful chant in celebration of the New Year. The fact that Bong and co-writer Kelly Masterson don’t stop to explain these weird little instances only strengthens the reality of their post-apocalyptic ecosystem. It adds a little grain of lived-in authenticity to the tremendous world-building on display.
Bong directs Snowpiercer with an innovative sense of propulsion and forward motion, similar to his eternally running train. Although it would be nearly impossible not to repeat certain shots and angles, the achievement is that Bong and cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo give the impression that they are not repeating anything — they are simply that inventive. The tightness of the railcars is used in camera setups and framing to amp up tension and investigate character dynamics. The lighting reflects the condition of life for each railcar, whether it be muted palettes skewing black and white or bombastically colorful. The lighting and color of Snowpiercer heavily assists in detailing the microcosm of a society these characters live in. Bong typically deals in dark human drama, but he provided some of the best action in the same year as heavyweight films like The Raid 2 and John Wick, featuring shots like a slow-motion tracking shot of Curtis mowing his way through some soldiers, or a cross-car gun fight as the train goes around a circle. These moments are thrilling, coherently staged and constructed with characters and story pushing the action forward, rather than the other way around. Bong and Masterson’s script has this same momentum, always progressing while wonderfully detailing and exploring the train and its inhabitants, along with the layered ideas of society at the core of Snowpiercer. There is a lot of violence and death in this film, yet none of it feels glorified. Bong is responsible when showing the grisliness and the utter pointlessness of murder, even in the midst of creating highly gorgeous and inventive scenes which contain the acts. When characters deserve death, Bong still conveys the loss of life.
The production design in Snowpiercer is a modern marvel of craft and ingenuity in filmmaking. The influences of H.R. Giger, David Lynch and Terry Gilliam permeate the designs, each railcar telling a new story of identity and history in this society. The costumes intuitively tell everything you need to know about where each character comes from, where they “belong” on the train. Marco Beltrami, usually a middle-tier composer, delivers some of his best work here. His lively tracks utilize percussion and orchestra to deliver a propelling feeling, not unlike that of the train itself. He makes moments feel as large as the destruction of city by the volume and despair of his notes.
The cast, an international one made up of MVPs and all-stars, are each incredible, making a memorable mark no matter how large or small the role. It’s encouraging that Chris Evans spends his free time between Marvel films doing zany, independent auteur work such as this. What’s even better is that he excels. We’ve become so used to seeing him stand for justice and righteousness as Captain America, so it’s almost easy to forget that he’s capable of whole other ranges of emotion. He’s the steady rock for the insanity and complexity of Snowpiercer’s ideas, but it’s clear that he’s holding back a lot of pain and anger. Everyone looks up to him like a hero, like he’s Captain America, but he knows better and hates us for looking at him that way. In the climax, Evans gets a monologue in which he details his sins, and during this moment, his character’s stone-walled demeanor comes crashing down. Curtis is no hero, he doesn’t deserve to be. The scene highlights an incredible new depth for Evans, and I hope he soon gets to explore this type of acting range again.
Tilda Swinton is transcendent as a grimy, gender-ambiguous Margaret Thatcher-looking deputy minister from the front of the train, Mason. It’s a completely gonzo performance that is dialed past camp into a territory all her own. Her performance must be seen to be understood, and that is a compliment. Alison Pill makes a brief, insanity-fueled appearance as a gung-ho school teacher, complete with a bizarre segue into musical theater for the film. Song Kang-ho is one of the best actors in South Korean cinema, starring in numerous classics and gems to come out of the country. To watch any of his performances is to watch a master at work. Here he finally gets to shine on an international stage. He effortlessly oscillates between comedy and drama in his interactions as Namgoong and Yona transition from comedic accents something resembling of the film’s heart and soul. (Fun fact: Song and Ko also played father and daughter in Bong’s fantastic monster movie The Host.) Smaller roles, yet no less memorable, are filled out by the talents of Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Clark Middleton, Ewen Bremner, Luke Pasqualino, Vlad Ivanov and Emma Levie.
Snowpiercer asks tough questions about society, class and humanity with no easy answers. The theory about the shifting of power begins so simply: take the engine to take the train. But in taking the engine, the problems won’t change. Displacing one societal structure for another doesn’t change the necessity for class and division. Does Bong necessarily believe in the need for disparity and division? I won’t dare speak for him, but Snowpiercer does a unique thing by convincingly playing devil’s advocate. It’s not enough to take the top of the system, sometimes you have to destroy it to enact real change. Is there hope in such a world? The ending is undeniably open to interpretation, but it seems to suggest that hope can still exist as long as life does.
Dylan Moses Griffin (@DMosesGriffin) has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.