Indisputably poor taste. I agree. A desperate attempt at drawing attention to my “content” meaning these words. I should be ashamed of myself.
But it worked.
What I am actually referring to is Chris Evan’s new movie Snowpiercer.
wherein the man who warmed our hearts as good Captain America plays the de facto leader of a lower caste of reformed cannibals who have been stuck for seventeen long years in the rear of a locomotive that unceasingly circumnavigates an earth bonded by endless winter.
By all accounts, Evans is an intelligent man who attends to his career. Bright, educated, privileged, good-looking, kind-hearted, socially responsible: the laundry list of his merits goes on and on. So much so that he was a shoe-in for Steve Roger’s spandex.
Thus Snowpiercer. A great move to diversify his portfolio. An international production, in many ways it heralds the future of cinema. Our own entertainment machine, bless its heart, is now a maudlin centenarian and acts it, regularly rewarding its mostly white, mostly male actors and directors with awards that complete the back-rub circle. Hollywood might have made Snowpiercer in the 1970s or 80s but it has since learned its lesson: Truly experimental film in glorious surrealism and weirdiousity has been outsourced or relegated to the independent film sphere.
Or both, Rian Johnson received considerable financial backing from Chinese investors for his edgy sci-fi thriller, Looper. Snowpiercer reverses the flow of talent from East to West. Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, helms the film which was jointly produced by American and Korean parties, one of whom, Park Chan-wook, was the director of the cult hit Old Boy (2003). With an international cast that includes Evans, Song Kang-ho, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell and William Hurt, it is an endeavor so ambitious in scope, so rich in talent…
…that it invariably fails.
Not a huge failure, but a small one: death by a thousand cuts.
Bong Joon-ho’s project is too self-aware, too earnest. He has proven himself capable of international success with the campy horror flick, The Host, and the film noir, Mother. No one would accuse him of suffering from lack of talent or ambition. In fact, the inverse happens with Snowpiercer it is too ambitious, too talented. Bong, standing on the international stage, seems more concerned with paying homage to his influencers’ vision than crafting his own.
The move is chock full of references, some tongue-in-cheek, others decisively over-the-top. Here are a few of the more obvious ones: a shoe hurled at a member of the oppressor class alludes to Muntadhar al-Zaidi’s podiatric attack on George Bush; the Wizard of Oz and Willy Wonka combine to form the name of the train’s designer and leader of this twisted, mobile society, Wilford; lastly the murder by knife of a mute recalls the agonizingly slow killing of the battalion’s only obviously Jewish member in Saving Private Ryan.
The list goes on and on. This penchant for summoning up vignettes from other movies is at the core of Snowpiercer’s problem: With so many references, the brain begins to fill with associations. As a culture, we are now highly sensitized to visual imagery and its implications.
One of my favorite writers and teachers, John Gardner, talks about the associative effect of words on the fictional dream:
Every word, even the dullest and most frivolous, makes waves, calls up dark, half-unconscious associations which poetic context can illuminate…. Ever metaphor conjures an inexpressible background, ties the imagined to the fully experienced. (On Moral Fiction p.67-68)
The same is true of images. Though the viewer may not be aware of the association between the image, the scene it resides in, and the theme expressed, unconsciously he or she makes a connection. When such references are made in form only, with no attention made to the theme residing in this “inexpressible background”, a collision can occur between the assembled images and the themes they bespeak.
Consider again, the example Private Stanley Mellish’s death in Saving Private Ryan and its reboot in Snowpiercer. The original scene is commentary on the decimation of European Jews by the Nazis. Slow, remorseless, methodical, a dagger stabbed straight into the heart of a people the Nazis had once lived side by side with. Mellish’s death is interior and intimate in stark contrast with the battle raging outside the walls: rockets flying, bullets whistle through the air, the shouts of men and the collision of tanks and artillery with the town’s buildings.
In Snowpiercer this scene lacks gravitas. The murderer has no prior relationship with his victim, a mute acrobat whose existence is never quite explained. Likewise, any implication about the cruelty of one group of people towards another, analogized by Mellish’s death, is rendered generically obsolete in Snowpiercer.
Let’s go even deeper, riding Gardner’s wave all the way back to the preeminent source of inspiration for this movie: director Terry Gilliam. It is his work that is most responsible for the tone of Snowpiercer. Right away, any doubt that his presence is aboard the train can be dismissed in toto: John Hurt’s character, the original rebel, is called Gilliam.
Brazil is the Gilliam film Snowpiercer is most indebted to. This singular work is itself a slapdash recreation of Fritz Lang’s masterpiece Metropolis. But, whereas Lang’s dystopia is done with Teutonic straightforwardness, Gilliam’s Brazil embraces the absurdist aesthetics he developed as a founding member of Monty Python. Brazil is quintessentially Kafkaesque, a treatise on the grotesque result of a hyper-bureaucratized world in which absolute order leads to absolute chaos.
This paradox, omitted in Metropolis, is central to Brazil. Gilliam draws upon the absurdity and farce in the works of Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, George Orwell and Franz Kafka. With this consistency of tone and theme, Brazil is a work that has and will withstand the test of ages.
When such scenes of absurdity are borrowed for use in Snowpiercer, on the other hand, they stick out… like a frozen arm. For one thing, the central paradox is fundamentally different. In Brazil, it is that absolute order results in absolute chaos. In Snowpiercer, it is that through revolution, order is reestablished. For another thing, this paradox seems more like an afterthought than a guiding premise.
It is a brilliant oxymoron no doubt, but it gets lost lost in this tundra of high concept ideas, like a snowflake in a blizzard. After all, having too many themes is the same as having none: like the guy who chases too many girls at the club, invariably returning home alone, Snowpiercer, by aspiring to too many themes, ends up with none.
This lack of cohesive direction accounts for the irregular quality of the performances. Though not necessarily dialed in, they are befuddled and random. It’s as if in each scene the actor has a different motivation. Chris Evans is at once savior and villain, everyman and uberman, at times angry and spiteful, at others calm and calculating. Ed Harris’s Wilford is particularly egregious. With two models to draw from, Willy Wonka and the Wizard of Oz, he elects for the safety of non-expression rather than risk smashing the two together. The two might have some similarities: puerility, duplicity, etc. but at core they are quite different.
There are other things I could harp on and grumble about, but I ought to stop. The truth is I’m only spending so much time deconstructing this movie because I really wanted it to succeed. What a great premise! What a brilliant cast! What a creative director! How could any film buff worth his salt not want it to succeed?
In the end, however, Snowpiercer’s motives are suspect and thus, fail it. Director Bong Joon-ho seems hell-bent on making a cult classic. Very rarely are such projects planned in advance, however. Most of the time, like every other movie, a cult classic begins with the intention of being a Money-Maker, a Blockbuster, a cash cow. Often they flop or go unnoticed for years before finding their audience in a new era.
Snowpiercer may yet go on to become a cult classic, but I doubt it. Rather and unfortunately, I think it will be lost to memory, a snowflake in a blizzard, remembered as the little train that couldn’t. A near miss, an amazing convergence of international talent that in the end became a pile-up, a beautiful train wreck.