Welcome to the first installment of my 2018 blog series Movie of the Month. Here I'll get a little more in depth with movie reviews than I tend to get on Letterboxd. I might do a little research on some of the movies, get into fan theories, have some movie related jokes or just mostly waste everyone's time. Here, I won't restrict myself to movies I haven't already reviewed either on the blog or on Letterboxd. There might be months where the movie is a double bill of two movies that go together, a short series of movies or they might fit a theme for the month. There will be spoilers so grab on to your pearls and get ready for January's movie: Snowpiercer (2013).
There was a rather cold stretch in Minneapolis this winter of subzero days so it was only fitting to pick a January movie off of my Cold Weather Movie List and this just might be the coldest near the top of the list. I have memories of a cold day in my college days going over to a friend's house that had a wood stove that didn't quite warm the TV area of the living room and watching about Shackleton and The Endurance being trapped in Antarctica. It was truly an experience of freezing to the bones while still inside. I liked to relive this kind of experience in my first apartment I had without roommate where I would watch The Shining on snowy days and more recently I would put Fargo on for a cold day in Minnesota. Snowpiercer is the coldest of all of these movies and it's fitting for the especially cold stretches that come each winter.
The elevator pitch for this movie is not an easy sell. It takes place on a post-apocalyptic snow train after the rest of the word has frozen over. The steerage class in the back of the train lives in squalor and fights its way to the front to overtake the wealthy class. It's a South Korean directed movie in English with American and British actors produced by Korean and Czech producers. I heard this while living in Phoenix, was pretty sure I would never see it until I saw it was Bong Joon-Ho directing and Chris Evans staring. I gave it a shot, loved it, then went out and bought the graphic novels it is based on.
When I say the movie is based on the graphic novels, it is a loose relationship. They share the setting of a frozen over Earth, the last people are on a train, and the people in the back are fighting to get to the religiously worshiped engine in the front, where the wealthiest people play. In the graphic novel, instead of the relationship between the rebel leader and protege, there is a love story between a man and a woman. In the first book, it is a couple whose heads are shaved. In the second, the woman is the daughter of a prominent member of the front of the train.
There are a few interesting aspects to the books that were not in the movie. The books do show some of the sleeping accommodations closer to the front of the train, giving the world of the train a little more depth. The second book introduces the Snowpiercer 2, a second train, just like the first that is following on the same track. The passengers on the second train are given propaganda telling them to constantly be in fear of a head on collision with the other train so that they can rule through fear and the passengers swallow down anti-anxiety medication. They also stop from time to time and explorors dressed similarly to astronauts who investigate the world around them. Other passengers don't know there are people going outside. There is a cult that believe they don't need to worry about a head on collision because they have been lied to by the front of the train and they are really living in a space ship in space. The most popular escapist activity on Snowpiercer 2 is visiting virtual reality landscapes created by artists on the train.
In the books, the first train has not derailed. The engine is not maintained by children but the main character does become trapped in the engine car because he had blown out the windows of the last connecting car. The rear of the train disconnects and falls back from the front of the train. Snowpiercer 2 has to turn around when they find a bridge is out ahead of them. The books all end with notes of hopelessness: the main character is trapped in the engine room and cannot control the train from his position and his love interest has frozen to death just one car behind him, the train is destined to continue around the world forever with a real danger of hitting the other train, the beacon from the outside world is just an automated message and the train is doomed to continue circling the globe. However, the movie ends with the hope that some of the children have escaped into the newly thawing world.
In the time between the original French Snowpiercer book (Le Transperceneige to the two sequels, the writer passed away and a new writer came in for books two and three. The book writers were under the frame of mind that new creators had the free reign to create new interpretations of the trains and that new writers were playing with new trains and new characters. With this philosophy of the original source material, it is absolutely within the spirit of Snowpiercer for it to have a different plot, tone, and characters.
The movie is masterful in its cartoonish use of Tilda Swinton as a Margaret Thatcher-style villain and Allison Pill as the deranged school teacher. The school propaganda video that does a good deal of the world building is brilliantly colorful and charming and on this viewing I realized how little time it takes up in the movie yet it conveys the information of a much longer segment. The movie does have Wilfred as a character with Ed Harris who brings a lot of weight to the sociological puppet master of the train. The train is an ecosystem that must be limited from the number of fish in their manufactured sea to the number of people in their manufactured world. This is a satisfying reveal of the system of the train while the books fail at this by showing the voice of their propaganda is an actual puppet that didn't seem to really fool anyone. It's a disappointing twist that doesn't seem to shock the people living on the pages at all.
The authors of the books were shocked to learn a South Korean director was contacting them for the rights of the book because they had not authorized a translation into Korean at that time. It turned out Bong Joon-Ho found a pirated version in a comic store while he was making The Host and felt the book was very cinematic. It is. The frames with the train plowing through the landscape feel like long lingering shots and that the train has an expressive face of its own.
The release of this movie in the US was delayed because Bong Joon-Ho had a disagreement with the producers over the cut of the movie. The producers, a specific producer, wanted to cut 20 minutes and add an explanation of the world building through an animated sequence. The sequence is well made but completely blows up the tone of the movie before it starts and ruins many of the reveals that are given through dialogue about the boarding of the train 17 years prior. And who was this controlling asshole who wanted to chop apart this excellent movie in order to have it play a few more times in art houses, you ask? Harvey Weinstein, of course. Luckily for us, Bong Joon-Ho was confident and strong willed enough to hold out on these changes and change distributors himself to release the movie he created.
Chris Evans has built up such a prolific film career in comic book movies he had been in more comics movies than anyone else as of just a couple of years ago (aside from Stan Lee cameos). He probably is still very safe maintaining that title through his Captain America roles, but those aren't the only comic book movies he has been in. He has Snowpiercer, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, two Fantastic Four movies, TMNT, The Losers, and eight movies in the role of Captain America (as of 1/28/2018) bringing a total of 14 comic book movies. Push had a comic book tie in, I'm not sure that it counts as I'm not sure if the movie is based on the comics.
There is an upcoming TV series of Snowpiercer coming to TNT this year. It is unknown when it will premier but it does have a pair of impressive leads in Daveed DIggs and Jennifer Connelly. It has been reported that it is based on the graphic novels so it's probably more likely that it will be another interpretation in the spirit of the creators. It would be interesting if it does live in the same world as the movie by following up with crash survivors and creating the danger of crashing into the derailed train within a year. I'm sure they are basing it somewhat on the second and third installments of the books as those opened up the world to more of the train and created the possibility of explorers to venture into the world outside the train.
It's my birthday month so I think I will go with my current favorite movie: Seven Samurai (1954)! Tune in sometime in February!
Follow along with the Letterboxd Movie of the Month list here.