The Grantland staff is currently a little obsessed with Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, a should-be U.S. blockbuster currently relegated to VOD and a handful of theaters across the country. (It’s already made more than $80 million internationally, so no need to worry about it.) It’s a weird, thoroughly entertaining piece of sci-fi action, that left us with more to chew on than a freshly milled batch of protein blocks.
WARNING: BIG SPOILERS AHEAD. If you haven’t seen the movie, go watch it right now, then come back here and climb aboard our hurtling apocalypse train.
On Big Screens, Release Strategies, and This Promising Young Up-and-Comer, Chris Evans
Bill Simmons: When I pay-per-viewed Snowpiercer on Sunday morning, I knew only two things: Two Grantland coworkers highly recommended it, and its plot revolved around people stuck on the back of a train desperately trying to reach the front. (Good premise!!!) I enjoy all action movies set on trains, whether we’re talking about Under Siege 2, Runaway Train, Money Train, Silver Streak, Unstoppable, Mission: Impossible (kind of), The Fugitive (the iconic scene), or Under Siege 2 a second time. I even enjoyed Supertrain, a legendary failure for NBC that was basically The Love Boat on a Train. Supertrain was even worse than it sounds. Here, look.
Needless to say, Hollywood hasn’t had the best track record with the words “set on a train.” But as soon as Snowpiercer’s opening credits start rolling, you just know. It’s the first truly great train movie, and you never doubt it for two hours. Fantastic (futuristic!) plot, well acted, incredibly creative, fun action scenes, real villains … I mean, what else do you want? By the end of the movie, I was actually angry. This was a wholly unique movie, like a Blade Runner–type experience, and I’d wasted it by watching at home.
So here’s my advice: Don’t watch this movie at home. The Snowpiercer producers tried a release strategy that seems creative even if it might not have always been their plan — they released it on a few screens, then they threw it on VOD for eight bucks, and now they’re planning a wider release. They claim they were trying to create word of mouth and a “long tail,” although I’m leaning toward “they never knew what they were doing with this movie, changed the strategy nine times and now they’re belatedly claiming they are being innovative.”
But they stumbled across a framework that might work long-term: What about dynamic pricing for movies that combines a theater release with staggered VOD releases? For instance, let’s say Neighbors premiered on VOD during the same weekend as its actual release, only the VOD price was $39.99 for three days only. You know who would have paid it? Me!!!! I have a wife and two kids! We have to get a babysitter every time we see a movie. I’d actually save money paying $39.99 for Neighbors. Three weekends later, it could return to VOD for 72 hours, only now it would cost $19.99. And three weekends later, it comes back for another 72-hour run, only at $14.99. You get the idea. There’s a smart idea in there somewhere, and Snowpiercer only scratched the surface of it.
As for the actual movie, I don’t want to give too much away. I want you to see it. But the lead guy in Snowpiercer is really good. And as I was watching it, I found myself getting madder and madder about the state of American movies, and how difficult it’s been for Hollywood to find genuine multipurpose stars of the Newman/Eastwood/McQueen/Redford variety. You know, those guys who suck you in and get you on their side just by being effortlessly cool. Halfway through the movie, I’m thinking, “This guy is a star, Hollywood sucks, God forbid we ever took a chance on anyone like this dude for a cool movie. Hollywood is the worst. Fuck Hollywood.”
About 75 minutes in, I start realizing that the guy looks vaguely familiar. Something about him. Was his beard throwing me off? I called up IMDb and … THAT’S CHRIS EVANS?????
The lesson, as always: I’m an idiot. So now that we have established that, you could at least trust me on this: Rent Snowpiercer, it’s the best eight bucks you will spend this summer.
Resistance Is a Form of Control
Chris Ryan: The man behind the curtain is a trope at least as old as The Wizard of Oz, and probably much older. Dorothy, Jack from Lost, Indiana Jones — they all get to the end of their quest, and in the final test they find that nothing is what it seems. The Wizard is a little guy, Desmond is in the bunker, the Grail Knight forces him to choose. So the emotional finale of Snowpiercer is not really that surprising. What’s surprising is that it’s basically just a rewrite of the Architect scene from The Matrix: Reloaded.
Holy shit, do you guys remember this? When I saw this in the theater, there were basically three reactions:
1. This is blowing my mind. I am never doing my homework again, and I am immediately starting a band called Chomsky, and we are never going to practice or play shows BECAUSE THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT THEY WANT YOU TO DO.
If I remember correctly — and don’t count on it, because 2003 was a long time ago — my reaction was some combo of all three. The original Matrix referenced all sorts of cool stuff like Randian Objectivism and Leninist Vanguardism, which all sounds very cool, but I was too busy thinking about The Matrix to read any of that stuff back then. What I do remember was that I thought the Architect scene was an incredibly brave choice — a dense, verbose, complex speech about resistance as a form of control, inserted in the middle of a 100-something-million-dollar blockbuster. You have this entire trilogy hinging on something most people can barely understand. Which, in the end, is sort of the point of the Architect.
This is all a long way of saying that, while I really like Snowpiercer, it was kind of funny to see that the man behind the curtain was Ed Harris wearing a silk robe and giving a CliffsNotes version of the Architect speech while frying up a steak. It’s kind of appropriate for a movie that ingeniously borrows, mixes, and matches from a various collection of influences — whether it’s the intellectual crescendo of the Matrix trilogy or the hammer fight from Oldboy. Part of the charm of Snowpiercer is its eclectic and excellent taste.
An Open Letter to Curtis, Leader of the Rear-Car Revolution, on Guilt and Redemption
Mark Lisanti: Dear Curtis,
I know that you are hurting right now. It’s a bone-deep and profound hurt. You’re doing your best to weather the body-racking waves of regret that threaten to paralyze you, to unnerve you, to weaken your resolve.
Actually, you probably feel nothing because you are dead. Congratulations on completing your mission! But you know what I’m getting at:
You’re very upset about eating babies.
And I’m here to tell you that it’s OK. Hear me out.
As a product of your time — a postapocalyptic time, in which the last vestiges of humanity hurtle through an uninhabitable snowscape that threatens to flash-freeze into fleshy popsicle shards anyone crazy enough to leave the protective cocoon of the Train — you can’t be held totally accountable for your actions. Sure, you could have opted not to eat any babies, and to sacrifice your arm for sustenance, the way many of the quote-unquote “braver” rabble from the rear car did, in, quite frankly, a very showy display of bravery. But know this: Someone would have eaten the babies. Someone did; lots of someones, in fact. And, like you, they probably found them delicious. Grudgingly, of course, because one never wants to admit to oneself that a baby might be a more pleasant thing to eat than, say, the dirty forearm of a shit-smeared economy-class passenger which poor nutrition has rendered stringy and without the pleasant marbling of your finer cuts of meat. So ease up on yourself for a minute. Perhaps you were part of the problem, but at least you felt bad about it. That’s a start.
And your arm? It turned out that you needed that arm. You may have been able to lead a revolution as a one-armed symbol of the resistance, but you were far more effective as a two-armed warrior hacking and slashing your way through the jackbooted legions trying to prevent your glorious revolution from ever reaching the front car. Leave the inspirational leadership to the old man in the rear. A guy with an umbrella for an arm is of limited use against a soldier with a machine gun. You need the two-armed folks on that front line.
You’ve heard all the arguments about population control, about the delicate balance of the Train’s ecosystem best maintained by the occasional sacrifice of the young. You may or may not agree with all of those arguments, but they were worth thinking about, especially since we’re trying to convince you not to beat yourself up so much about the baby-eating stuff. It’s helpful to add some of these reasons to your mental checklist of rationalizations for the dark times. It’s nice to know that they’re there, waiting to be ticked off.
Just know that overall everything worked out as it should have. Indeed, you were manipulated by puppetmasters from both the rear and front cars, one of whom you considered a hero, a mentor. And the man with the beautiful robe and piercing, soul-stabbing blue eyes in that front car may or may not have tricked you into eating a newborn rib eye, triggering the guilt-response you’ve worked so hard to manage once again. But bygones must be bygones.
They are all dead now. And so, we assume, are you.
So stop sweating the baby-eating thing.
When humanity rises again from its deep thaw and they sing your name around the flickering campfires of a new civilization, they’ll leave out that verse. You will be redeemed. You did your best.
Even if you thought, in your heart of hearts, that little Billy was super-delicious.
He probably was.
You were really hungry!
Frozen Arms Redemption
Sean Fennessey: Are you familiar with the “Limb Loss” film and television trope? I wasn’t either, though it is exactly as it sounds — characters who have lost an arm or a leg, typically in dramatic fashion, are often imbued with a certain dignity or clarity of purpose; they are vessels for empathy or victims of an uncommon aggression. Think Lieutenant Dan. There is one such Limb-Lossed Angel in Snowpiercer, played by Trainspotting stumblebum Ewen Bremner, he of the brambly Edinburgh accent and bug-eyed countenance. Bremner is a great That Guy, distinct but elusive and desperately present whenever he does pop up.
In Snowpiercer, he plays Andrew, a back-of-the-train vagrant who is summarily punished when he responds to his son’s capture by assaulting the impoverished caboose’s armed guards and flailing a shoe at Tilda Swinton’s be-dentured cranium. Andrew must be made an example of. Punishment on the Snowpiercer is unique: A rounded gear is cinched onto one of the offender’s arms, and a giant Flavor Flav clock is affixed to his or her neck, set to a time determined by the altitude and outside temperature — in Andrew’s case, seven minutes. It’s all very steamenginepunk. A nearby window is unscrewed, and said gear-locked appendage is thrust out the window for those seven minutes, gears clicking into place. Screams — cold, cold screams — ensue. When Bremner’s arm returns, it is pure ice, a long rod of frozen water and skin and blood. It is then shattered. It’s said that those missing limbs are the most respected in the tail of the train. Bremner’s Andrew is a yollering dolt driven mad by class warfare — but Bong makes him a martyr and a dramatic set piece.
What Was Up With That Catfish, Though?
Ben Lindbergh: On my hard drive, I have a fairly long list of Snowpiercer plot holes, which tells you both that the film takes some serious liberties with logic and that I can be a world-class time-waster. Pointing out inconsistencies isn’t part of my regular routine; though I could have, I wasn’t moved to make such a list after seeing, say, Non-Stop. Snowpiercer got under my skin in a way most movies don’t, making me care enough to speculate about how its puzzling world worked.
Crucially, the questions began to crop up only after the credits rolled. While I was watching, I wasn’t wondering whether Wilford had ever considered family planning as an alternative to violent revolt; what Gilliam (yes, as in Terry) got out of conning Curtis, aside from free phone minutes and the occasional amputation; what Wilford could teach the MTA about track maintenance; why simply stopping the train wouldn’t have been preferable to careening around and risking derailment; and why no one but Namgoong noticed that the world was warming. (Eternal engine, yes. Eternal external thermometer, no.) It wasn’t until I left the theater and Bong Joon-ho’s convincing vision of barely contained chaos was replaced by the more mundane sights of midtown Manhattan that Snowpiercer’s seams started to show.
It’s that set design and visual style, then (along with a few compelling performances), that make the movie, elevating its seat-of-the-pants plot and heavy-handed allegory into something that smacks of cult classic. More than anything, it’s Snowpiercer’s surrealism that transforms the train’s interior from a soundstage into a breathing, barely understood ecosystem. We get a salty taste of that strangeness early on, when Claude, Wilford’s personal assistant/kidnapping accomplice, takes a flying shoe to the forehead while abducting Timmy from the tail section.
Aside from her distaste for drab tail-section chic, we know nothing about Claude. She could be a cannibal or merely a curious soul suffering from a case of postapocalyptic cabin fever. With that one mysterious movement, though, she becomes one of the movie’s many minor characters who make us want to know more.
At a crucial juncture along the Tailies’ trek through the train, the revolutionaries square off over the water supply with an army of ax-wielding guards. Before the real brutality begins, though, the masked men take the time to adorn their axes with insides.
Maybe it’s an intimidation tactic. Maybe it’s supposed to symbolize that Curtis & Co., like the catfish, must be sacrificed for the train to maintain its precarious balance. Maybe it’s just a setup for some incongruous levity when Curtis later slips on the fish in slo-mo. Whatever the reason for the catfish cameo, it’s jarring and indelible, just like the moment in the midst of the melee when Curtis finds himself face-to-face with a foe who inexplicably smiles.
Had Harvey Weinstein gotten his way, inessential snippets like these might have been among those excised in pursuit of a more mainstream-friendly cut. Although you wouldn’t have found yourself saying, “The ax fight was cool, but I would have liked it more if one of Wilford’s henchmen had sliced open a fish first,” it’s those rough edges that set Snowpiercer apart from more sanitized dystopian summer sci-fi flicks like Oblivion or Elysium. In Snowpiercer, Mason was memorable because Tilda Swinton turned the weirdness up to 12, while in Elysium, Jodie Foster’s only slightly deranged Delacourt didn’t work. Absurdity was Snowpiercer’s secret weapon: Without the catfish and Claude, it would have been a far more forgettable flick.
Everything in Its Right Place
Emily Yoshida: One of the reasons I became obsessed with Legos as a kid was that they encouraged you to build out the margins, the parts of the world that maybe didn’t get much A-plot action but rounded out your blocky little society. There had to be beds for everyone somewhere on the premises; or at least some kind of secluded place for R&R. I’d build the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise, but then I’d decide there should be a flower shop down the hall. When you build in Legos, you have a decentralized, god’s-eye perspective, and the more occupied all your little people are, the more options they have, the more successful you feel as a builder.
I don’t know if there’s a word or succinct phrase for it, but that sort of cross-sectioning is one of my favorite things to see in movies, especially those that need to do a fair bit of world-building in an economical way. That it’s built into Snowpiercer’s visual and narrative grammar made the film that much more enjoyable. We learn about all the different interconnected elements of Train society along with Curtis and the rest of the revolutionaries as they make their way toward the front. And while the occasional tunnel catfish fight is very cool, I’m always eager to check in with the stylists and the botanists on board in between melees.
There’s something malevolent and fascistic about that cross-section in Snowpiercer, even — maybe even especially — further up and along in its more fantastical and luxurious cars. Sure, there’s the Hunger Games–style excess existing side by side with a tail section whose conditions we are made acutely aware of in the movie’s first third. But the cars themselves exist as a kind of propaganda for a functional community that doesn’t really exist on the train. There’s not a classroom car because anyone there believes in a happy future for their children, there’s not a party car because anyone has any reason to celebrate anything. Both just seem like things any city should have. Compartmentalizing each component of society into its own gleaming cabin car tells a story about train life and its sense of purpose that its denizens, even the wealthiest, probably couldn’t corroborate.
Snowpiercer is a thoroughly idiosyncratic film, as shaggy and weird as it is gripping, and a feat of world-building. But by the end, Wilford and his grand engine are also satirization of anyone who feels the need to make their (Lego) worlds, or their films, just so.