SNOWPIERCER Movie Review – The Director’s Cut Was Worth Fighting For
Snowpiercer has managed to take on something of a mythological form over the last year. Bong Joon-Ho’s new film has been highly anticipated by those who were blown away by his eccentric monster movie The Host and murder mystery masterpiece Mother. Fans waited with baited breath to see what he would do with the ambitious source material, high budget and cast of A-listers including Chris Evans and John Hurt. However, upon completion, Harvey Weinstein stripped creative control away from him.
Despite being one of the highest grossing releases in Bong’s home country the notoriously bull-headed studio mogul, who owns the rights to release it in six major Western markets, proceeded to cut an entire 20 minutes from the movie. He patronisingly claimed that he wanted Snowpiercer to be dumbed down so it “will be understood by audiences in Iowa and Oklahoma.” He allegedly took his infamous ‘scissor hands’ to the unconventional ending, a great deal of character development and one particularly taboo-breaking classroom scene.
It felt like the movie had derailed, like it was fated never to arrive in its intended form. Bong Joon-Ho and Harvey Weinstein quickly locked horns and lawyers became involved. The director’s loyal fan base, as well as pretty much anyone opposed to Weinstein’s tyranny, took Bong’s side and announced via social media that they would refuse to watch an American cut. Then, finally, after almost six months of fighting, Weinstein caved under the pressure from all corners and we got some welcome news: Snowpiecer would be given a limited US release in the summer, and it would be shown in full.
The question now remains: was the full director’s cut of Snowpiercer worth fighting for? In short: hell yes.
Snowpiercer is set in a post-apocalyptic future. In the beginning we learn that in an attempt to lower temperatures and stop global warming the governments of the world released a substance called CW7 into the atmosphere. It worked, but it worked too well. The planet’s temperature was sent dramatically in the other direction plunging humanity into a second ice age. The only people able to survive as the world descended into an uninhabitable frozen wasteland were the passengers of a non-stop train designed by the eccentric and enigmatic Wilford. The film is set entirely within the claustrophobic confines of this vehicle.
In the years since the event, the train has begun to form its own class system and political hierarchy. At the head of the train is an eccentric Terry Gilliam like world of overindulgence. Meanwhile, those at the tail of the train are enslaved to a life of drudgery. After years of pain and misery, the citizens at the tail of the train have had enough of being pushed around by those in charge. They are planning to revolt, determined to take the engine from its conductor Wilford. Curtis (Chris Evans), a fierce revolutionist with a dark backstory, has scripted a plan to make it past the guards that seclude one class from another alongside his mentor Gilliam (John Hurt). The fighters also include Curtis’ loyal friend Jamie Bell, security specialist Kang-Ho Song and his daughter Ah-Sung Ko, as well as Octavia Spencer who is looking for the young son Wilford took away from her.
When the action kicks in, Snowpiercer is structured in the video game format of The Raid. Each carriage possesses another wave of foes for the tail end of the train to defeat. Brilliantly constructed set pieces capture the action that is by turns beautiful and brutal. There’s an intense night-vision sequence that occurs when the train plunges into a tunnel. There’s also an axe-wielding corridor fight that sees Bong Joon-Ho throw down the gauntlet and challenge his producer Chan Wook Park’s masterful sequence in Old Boy. The film charges from one carriage to the next at a pulse-pounding speed with each new set piece.
As we follow the revolutionaries through each carriage, fighting their way to the front, we also bear witness the train’s hierarchy and the increasing levels of excess as they work their way towards the ‘sacred engine’. Tilda Swinton’s Minister Monroe, a Margaret Thatcher like antagonist who demands order and structure as Wilford’s second-in-command, defines the barmy world of the train’s head. This is the actress at her most absurd, and at her best.
Moments like these show that there is far more at work in Snowpiercer than just action. With rich political themes, the film provides a stark contrast to what many science fiction movies aspire to in the comic book era. But it’s not just the movie’s intelligence that makes it stand out from the crowd. One of the aspects that surely convinced Harvey Weinstein to attempt to cut the film is how feverishly unconventional Snowpiercer is. The plot twists and turns in directions that are unpredictable. It’s impossible to know where the film will take you from one moment to the next. It’s a film that actively enjoys throwing a spanner in the work and taking its audience by surprise – and it’s all the more entertaining for it.
The entire tone of the movie refuses to conform to expectations too. What begins as a dark and gloomy dystopian vision of the future gets increasingly bonkers as the revolutionaries ascend the train. This reaches fever pitch at the aforementioned taboo-breaking school scene. A bright and colorful diversion from everything that came before it, the scene sees the fighters interrupt The Newsroom star Allison Pill in the middle of a lesson in the train’s classroom. She’s teaching the train’s youth about the history of their home. A crazy and hilarious singsong interlude with the children ensues, describing their leader Wilford while the kids sport gothic hand-made masks like something out of The Wicker Man. It’s about to get even more surprising, concluding with an uncomfortable and shockingly dark twist that illustrates how far the train’s elite will go to prevent revolt. It is a moment likely to cause controversy.
However, the cause for major alarm at The Weinstein Company, at least if the reports are to be believed, was Snowpiercer’s final act. Of course, we won’t divulge any of the details about the film’s ending, but it should go without saying at this point that Snowpiercer doesn’t provide your typical Hollywood climax. Bong Joon-Ho’s overriding theme in the film is that of revolution, but his finale doesn’t conform to the optimistic cliche of good triumphing over adversity. Instead, Bong looks at whether the cost of revolution is really worth what it achieves. After the enormous tole in takes, are we destined to fall into the same patterns of hierarchy again and again? And if so, what is the solution? We won’t say any more for fear of revealing too much but it’s a bold, intelligent and fiercely unconventional ending that could, in fact, warrant an essay of its own.
Whether all of Snowpiercer‘s greatness would have been present had the Weinstein cut gone ahead is doubtful. The greatest attributes of Bong Joon-Ho’s release are both the complexity of its themes and the audacious way it executes them. A ‘dumbed down’ cut is likely to have hacked Snowpiercer to the simplest possible story it could, stripping this sci-fi of its lofty ambitions and glorious unpredictability. And these are precisely the things that make Snowpiercer one of the greatest entries into the genre in a long time.
So, was the full director’s cut worth fighting for? You are goddamned right it was.
Snowpiercer is currently available to purchase on blu-ray in France