Friday, August 09, 2013

"Snowpiercer": various reviews

Director Bong Joon-ho, perhaps best known for his monster film "Gwaemul" (called "The Host" in English, and not to be confused with the recent Saoirse* Ronan flop), has released a new sci-fi film called "Snowpiercer," which is based on a French graphic-novel adventure titled Le Transperceneige by Lob and Rochette. I haven't seen the movie; in fact, I'm not sure that it's been released in the US yet (there was some controversy over Harvey Weinstein's decision that, for "Snowpiercer" to show in the US, about twenty minutes would need to be cut from it). But some people have seen the movie, including my buddy Charles. Here's a quick survey of two good reviews and one very bad one:

Scott Foundas, writing for Variety, thought the film was quite good.

A rare high-end sci-fi/fantasy pic made completely outside the studio system, and that even rarer case of an acclaimed foreign helmer working in English with no appreciable loss of his distinctive visual and storytelling style, Bong’s adaptation of French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige” reps a pricey investment ($40 million) for majority producer CJ Entertainment, but seems a downright bargain compared with the cost of forging such pics on Hollywood turf.


By the end, the film reveals itself as a surprisingly thoughtful contemplation of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, and whether mankind is worth trying to save at all. Somber stuff, to be sure, but not without flashes of hope, and a steady infusion of Bong’s dark, quirky humor.

My buddy Charles also enjoyed the film.

But first, the bottom line: I enjoyed it, it gave me a lot to think about, and I would recommend it.


The story was engaging, the acting was very good (Captain America and the Weird Guy both turn in solid performances, and Tilda Swinton is frighteningly excellent, as usual), and the visuals were for the most part pleasing—my only quibble in the visuals department would be with some of the external shots of the train, which were either clunky CG or somewhat poorly integrated practical effects.

Mark Russell, by contrast, found the film awful, despite his respect for director Bong Joon-ho.

As I wrote Sunday, I found Snowpiercer to be rather ridiculous, heavy-handed and empty-headed. Not offensively terrible (like Kim Jee-woon’s I SAW THE DEVIL or everything Michael Bay has ever touched), but just really “meh.” For a director as good as Bong Joon-ho, I expect better and hold him to a higher standard.

Big picture first: the story just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work as science-fiction, and it doesn’t work as allegory. Just because a story with huge freakin’ plot holes was made by a favorite director doesn’t mean those holes aren’t there and aren’t massive. Even if you accept the silly idea of a train being the only thing to survive this massive, planet-wide cooling (and with a movie like this, you just sort of have to accept the initial premise, or why even watch?), nothing following makes sense.

Overall, audience opinion of the film seems to be positive, making Russell's opinion something of an outlier. Might this be a film I'd like to go see? Honestly, I'm not sure. I had originally read Robert Koehler's writeup of the film, at which point I tweeted:

Bong Joon-ho's "Snowpiercer": basically "Elysium" on rails. More class-warfare agitprop?

*In typical Celtic fashion, the spelling of Saoirse's name has almost nothing to do with how it's pronounced. I took a guess that it was pronounced "Charice" ("shuh-REESS"), which gets the "I" and the "R" backward, but according to Wikipedia her name is pronounced "SIR-shuh." Now you know.



Charles said...

This is interesting. I don't think I expressed this quite the way I needed to in my interview, but when I said that a more subtle, satirical approach (that is, trying to hide the political message to any extent) would have made the film seem "too clever," I'm not sure if I came up with the right words. I think what I meant to say was this: if the film had tried to be more subtle, it might have felt manipulative, but because it wears its heart on its sleeve, you either accept it or you don't, but you never really feel manipulated. "Class-warfare agitprop" is a rather harsh assessment, and one I do not agree with. Propaganda this blatant only works in a brainwashed society--in a free-thinking society, it simply provides you with the opportunity to think about the issues. I don't think the world exists the way it is depicted in the film, but I also don't think the depiction has no basis in reality. Your mileage may vary.

As for plot holes, sure, there are plot holes. It's hard to say how many of these are a result of the graphic-novel-adaptation problem and how many have been there all along. A lot of the science seems more like magic, but I wonder if that was not a deliberate choice. But again, I don't want to get into spoiler territory, so I won't talk about any of the specific things that made me tilt my head.

Scott said...

I loved 'The Host', so I was excited for this film. Perhaps too excited? I was really let down and had a hard time finishing the movie. My politics lean left, and I would have found social commentary about division of wealth issues interesting, but it was not done with any subtlety or insight whatsoever. Aside from the Korean actors, none of the roles were interesting and some were based on worn stereotypes. The plot holes were just too much, and the twist at the end was simply B movie level. I'll watch it again later when it comes out on Korean TV and see if I missed something, but...I don't think so. It's simply a misfire.