Saturday, January 10, 2015

BEST FILMS OF 2014--#2: "Snowpiercer" and its Brilliant World-Building Make it an Instant Sci-Fi Classic

This is the tenth in a series of eleven posts counting down my favorite films of the year. Be sure to read about my #3 pick, #4 pick, #5 pick, #6 pick, #7 pick, #8 pick, #9 pick, #10 pick#11 pick, and about the honorable mentions too.

The aquarium scene from Snowpiercer, my pick for the second best movie of the year, and one of my new favorite sci-fi movies of all time.
While this film is not a huge player in the Oscar conversation (more on that in a bit), one shouldn't be too surprised to see it on a list such as this one. It's a critically-acclaimed film which has appeared on numerous top ten lists as the year came to a close (its wikipedia page lists close to fifty). And yet, despite its acclaim, I'm sure I have at least a couple of readers who are thinking "What's Snowpiercer? And why have I never heard of it?" Well, there's a reason you haven't heard of it and his name is Harvey Weinstein. Yes, Harvey Weinstein,  head honcho of the Weinstein Company and quite possibly the most powerful man in show business, picked up this film's American distribution rights and then immediately tried to bury it. Why? Let's examine the complicated history of getting Snowpiercer into theaters.

Pictured: the board of directors at The Weinstein Company

Snowpiercer is the English-language debut of South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. Joon-ho has built up a solid reputation and, while widely unknown in the U.S., is perhaps best known here for his film The Host. No, not the Stephenie Meyer one, but the brilliant comedy monster movie that is really worth checking out. Based loosely on a French graphic novel called Le Transperceneige, the film has an all-star cast, including Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, Ed Harris, Ewen Bremner, and Jamie Bell. With such a pedigree, the Weinstein Company reportedly picked up the film before it was even completed, based on just a script and a couple of scenes of footage. The film then was released in Asia and Europe to mass critical acclaim. When it came time to release it in America, however, Harvey Weinstein apparently watched the film and told Joon-ho to cut twenty minutes off the runtime and add a voiceover monologue at the end so that people wouldn't get confused. Joon-ho, rightfully, pointed out that the ending was not confusing--nobody had complained about it and both audiences and critics seemed happy. He didn't want his movie watered down, and so he said no to Harvey Weinstein.

This is why the Weinstein Company did not advertise the film at all, and released it in only a couple of theaters initially. It is only due to high audience turnout (thanks to several internet campaigns to raise awareness of the film) and positive critical response that the film eventually got a wider release. And it is, in fact, currently available on Netflix. If you haven't seen it, go watch it now. It is brilliant.

The cast of Snowpiercer

I mention all of this because I think it's important to remember how much goes into getting a movie into theaters--and how quality alone doesn't mean everything. But also because Snowpiercer's path to a release actually seems pretty fitting. It was never going to be a mainstream film-- it has a more cult-film atmosphere and aesthetic. As I watched it, the two films that came to mind were Blade Runner and Brazil. They're very different films--all three films have an aesthetic that is all their own--and deal with different subject matters, but all three films possess a certain offbeat and innovative feeling to them. These are sci-fi films that seek to push the boundaries of our imaginations--they utilize the inherent creativity of the genre to allow them to create something that more vividly paint a portrait of humanity. And, by the way, like Snowpiercer, Blade Runner was a flop with audiences when it was first released (and wasn't a huge hit with critics either). And Brazil not only didn't perform well in theaters, but like Snowpiercer, had difficulty getting into theaters. Executives at Universal Pictures wanted director Terry Gilliam to change the film so that it had a happy ending, and Gilliam refused, so they refused to release the film. Gilliam started taking out newspaper ads urging them to release it, and resorted to doing private screenings of the film for critics and film schools. It didn't make it to theaters for the general public until it won Best Picture at the Los Angeles Film Critics Awards. So, Snowpiercer is in good company.

One of many stylized and unique still shots from Snowpiercer.

The film itself is a postapocalyptic dystopian world where global warming has made earth's climate completely inhospitable. All life on earth is now confined to a train which is forever circling a track around the world--a sort of large-scale Noah's Ark. The train is divided by class, with those at the front of the train living in luxury, while those at the tail end of the train live in squalor, their lives made miserable by a police squad acting supposedly under the orders of Wilford, the conductor and inventor of the train. The film follows a group of citizens living in the tail of the train who launch a rebellion to make it to Wilford and take over. The premise is ridiculous-- Icy Postapocalyptic Doom Train sounds more like a Nicolas Cage film than a philosophical drama--but it succeeds by its strength at world-building. The world of the train is so defined that we believe it could exist. Much ado has been made about how another sci-fi film this year, Interstellar, strove for scientific accuracy, and that certainly is an admirable goal. But while the premise of Snowpiercer may be more unrealistic, it feels more fully defined. The film gives us just enough information and detail (I particularly liked the touch that, since the train take a full year to go around the world, the new year is marked by them going over a particular bridge) to let us buy the premise.

One of the most interesting things about the world of Snowpiercer is how much it changes over the course of the film. The first third of the film is spent in the tail cars with the lower class citizens, and that world has its own distinct look and feel. But as our rebel heroes move further through the car, the world of Snowpiercer expands and we see that the world of the tail was not at all indicative of how most lived their lives. In the tail of the train, there is hardly any color--it's dark and everything is black or grey or dark brown.

Pictured: everything being black or grey or dark brown.

So it's jarring when, at one point, the rebels move to another car and we suddenly find ourselves in a vibrant greenhouse.

Pictured: suddenly finding ourselves in a vibrant greenhouse.

In that one scene, we realize that we can no longer hold ourselves to our previously held notions of this world. Each new car they enter feels like a gift and a surprise. There's a magical aquarium room, a weird rave room (what's the apocalypse without a rave, after all) and an absolutely terrifying classroom filled with happy happy children who sing songs about how everyone is going to die. Snowpiercer keeps its audience on its toes--setting up a world and then subverting our expectation. Each scene brings something new and exciting. And the power is in the details. Everything is mapped out so meticulously. As soon as I finished watching it, i thought "I have to see this again to notice what I missed."

The aforementioned classroom scene. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention they're all doing the Nazi salute. It''s weird.

And then there are the performances. Chris Evans has proven his acting chops before, and brings a lot of depth to his most prominent role as Captain America in the Marvel movies, but he is given a much darker and weightier role here. He plays Curtis Everett, the leader of the rebellion, and his casting is no coincidence--here, he is once again heroesque, and his reputation certainly adds to his believability in this leadership position. But Curtis has a dark side. He's brooding, he's insecure, he's angry, and there's more to him that one typically sees in most action heroes. Another standout performance is South Korean actor Song Kang-ho as Namgoong Minsu, a prisoner and drug addict who designed the security system for the train and, with his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung) helps the rebels get to the front. Namgoong is fascinating--his allegiance is never fully clear. He's apathetic, he's rude, he's gruff, and criminal. But then he's tender and kind with Yona, he waxes poetic, and appears to be surprisingly sensitive. There's the always wonderful John Hurt as the old revolutionary Gilliam (a clear nod to the aforementioned Brazil director) who fulfills the trope of the wise advisor to a tee, but with a bit more to him than originally meets the eye. The whole cast is great, and the train is filled with colorful characters (including a creepy and terrifying bald man whose job it is to distribute eggs).

Namgoong and Yona.

But the best character by far is that of Mason, the minister of the train, played by Tilda Swinton. I love the film as a whole, but even if I did not care for it, it would be worth seeing to see Swinton's performance. Always an interesting actress, I always held her in high regard, and this performance STILL blew me out of the water-- I couldn't believe what I was seeing. In the world of film villains, there are two types--there are quiet antagonists who are believable in their plans to take down their rivals, and then there are over-the-top villains who are almost cartoony in their evils schemes. At their best, these over-the-top villains can use their oddness to be menacing. What could have (and does, if not performed will) potentially come across as silly, in the hands of a gifted actor instead comes across as hugely unsettling, the character's weirdness unnerving us in terms of just how inhuman they are. The best example I can think of is probably Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight--this is a character who manages to achieves a certain level of malevolence that a more realistic character simply could not. Well, Swinton's performance as Mason is the single best over-the-top villain since Ledger's Joker. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Mason is even BETTER than Ledger's Joker. It's simply a breathtaking performance--you cannot take your eyes off of Swinton every time she's on screen. It is, in my opinion, simply the best performance of the year, and one of the best film performances I've ever seen.

Pictured: acting brilliance
As portrayed by Swinton, Mason is a grotesque and simply vile creation. A minister who is in charge of keeping the tail-dwellers in line, Mason does not even attempt to hide their contempt for these lower class citizens, treating them with nasty condescension, and a palpable amount of glee when doling out brutal punishments (in the first ten minutes of the film, someone's arm is chopped off under Mason's callous command). Mason relishes every moment of holding power, and when happy, Swinton has a wild and dangerous glint in her eye. But, we also get to see Mason at a disadvantage after they lose their seat of power, and in these instances, Mason becomes cockroachlike, with the traits of self-indulgence and cowardice being put on full display. Perhaps fitting for this film, we believe that Mason will do absolutely anything to survive--Mason's complete lack of empathy and regard for others suddenly being taken to the extreme. Mason is so off the charts wacky that we know they're capable of anything and everything. And yet, Swinton plays Mason with ease. There is a grace to her odd movements. As weird as Mason is, we believe that such a character would exist because Swinton brings Mason to life with such ferocity.

Mason gives a speech about shoes and metaphors.
Even better is the fact that this portrayal is so concretely linked to Swinton's work. I didn't find this out until after I'd seen the film twice, but in the script, none of Swinton's character-work would be apparent. Mason was originally written to be a fairly standard answer-man. Written for a man, Mason was a straight-laced by the book law enforcer, overly officious and cruel, but otherwise a somewhat typical member of a ruling militaristic regime. Swinton met with director Bong Joon-ho to see if there would be a part in the film for her. Joon-ho didn't think there was, but on a whim, asked if she'd read for Mason. The rest is history. In Swinton's hands, Mason became a genderless oddity (one who wears frocks but is still referred to as sir--where Mason lies on the gender spectrum is never directly addressed in the film) and an absolute nightmare of the bizarre. Swinton is captivating to watch.

To quickly address Oscar hopes, the film is not likely to be recognized on Oscar night, but is seen as a dark horse contender for a nomination in the categories of art direction, adapted screenplay, and, yes, best supporting actress. The Supporting Actress category has been thin this year (there have been a ton of amazing supporting performances from women which have been ignored--Carrie Coon in Gone Girl? Rene Russo in Nightcrawler? Hello?!) and as such, only four nominees have really risen to seem like strong bets for a nomination (those being Patricia Arquette, Keira Knightley, Emma Stone, and Meryl Streep). That leaves a fifth nomination totally up for grabs. And while the best bet is Jessica Chastain for A Most Violent Year, Swinton actually has a chance to get an Oscar nomination--with her recent Critic's Choice nomination for this role suddenly launching her back into the race. Whether she or another wildcard fills that fifth and final spot is irrelevant, and while I obviously hope Swinton is the one who gets recognized, the fact remains that Swinton does truly amazing work.

Here's one last picture of the truly bizarre and wonderful Minister Mason.

And the success of the character of Mason speaks to the success of Snowpiercer as a whole. It embraces the weird and accepts that its audience will be able to keep up. The beauty of creating such a vibrant and unrealistic world is that it allows a film to approach a subject from a heightened angle, which sometimes allows that subject to be better discussed than in a more realistic setting. This past year, in fact, I was amazed by how in two films which discussed the subject of grief--The Babadook and Cake, the horror film was the one which so distinctly had more insight and provided a more thought-provoking statement (although, that being said, Jennifer Aniston's performance in Cake really is worth all of the hype it has been getting). Snowpiercer is the same way--the story of Curtis and his rebels takes a lot of twists and turns along the way, and examines some of the toughest and largest philosophical questions one can ask (such as whether humans are inherently good, or whether the needs of the many really do outweigh the needs of the few) with finesse. It is a meticulously crafted film--one of the best science fiction movies of the past decade, and one of the most striking, curious, and ambitious projects of recent memory. See it because it's an amazing film. And, if that's not good enough, see it because it will piss off Harvey Weinstein.

And it will make John Hurt happy.

1 comment:

  1. My mom works at a public library, and she says this movie is a popular check out. It's never on the shelves for long. It's really good.

    I'm glad there wasn't a voice over. It gives viewer a lot to discuss.