Snowpiercer

Size ten chaos

snowpiercerYour first hint about the depth of Snowpiercer is that it’s named after a gigantic plot device: a self-sustaining train that bashes through solid walls of ice and snow in order to continue its eternal loop around the world.  The film is effectively the underdog version of Edge of Tomorrow: based on dystopic graphic novels, starring a reliable Hollywood actor, and far more concerned with what’s happening than why it’s happening or why anyone should care.  Which parts, I wonder, did Harvey Weinstein want to trim or change?

The story takes place after humans attempt to combat global warming, and instead cause a new ice age that apparently wipes out all life on Earth, though I’m not sure whose in-universe conclusion that was.  Either way, the remaining people have taken refuge on the aforementioned train, whose magic engine is responsible for sustaining the lives of the few thousand humans left.  A few issues already: why can’t they just turn on the engine and keep the train at a standstill?  The treacherous snowstorms at every turn aren’t exactly facilitating the goal of survival.  Also, even with the great length of the train, a few thousand people are not enough to keep the human race alive, so it’s kind of an all-for-nothing game already, but the narrative itself seems unaware of that, so we’re left to suspend our disbelief.

We start with Curtis (Chris Evans), a Boring Hero who has become sick of the caste system put in place by those who run the front of the train.  Those in the “tail section,” including Curtis’s friends Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and Edgar (Jamie Bell), as well as one-armed/one-legged mentor Gilliam (John Hurt), live in squalor and eat nothing but blocks of protein that look like Jell-O and probably taste much less pleasant.  The story begins as a small army of mooks shows up and inexplicably takes away two of the tail section’s children, much to the chagrin of Curtis and Edgar, who spend five minutes speaking in exposition in a scene that would have been much more effective (and no less clear) if they hadn’t said anything at all.  A would-be riot occurs, during which inciter Andrew (Ewan Bremner) throws a shoe at the wrong person: Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton at her hammiest), who then makes an example of Andrew by making him stick his arm out the window of the train, exposing it to the cold until it is frozen and useless.  Then they slam it with a carnival mallet, because it’s fun to watch stuff shatter, and let’s face it, there’s nothing better to do.

Through some of the exposition, we gather that there was an attempt at revolution four years ago, but no one has been able to run the gauntlet to the front of the train.  But during today’s kidnapping, Curtis notices that Mason’s soldiers do not have bullets in their guns.  Gilliam agrees: these guys come in here with guns every day, but have never even fired a warning shot.  The next time they try something, Curtis rallies every able body in the tail section, including Tanya, whose son was one of the children abducted.  The good guys defeat the guards and rush through the gates that they’re not allowed to pass.  The movie still has two hours left, and it waits almost that long to try to develop the characters (y’know, after most of them are dead).

From here, Snowpiercer becomes a relentless Game-of-Death-style battle movie, in which each train car involves a different type of fighting, ranging from various Bull-shitsu to unnecessary slow-motion kills to Zero Dark Thirty found-footage night-vision.  The one bit of story that happens in between involves the freeing of Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho), the film’s Belligerent Savant, from the prison car, along with his supposedly clairvoyant (because that’s normal!) daughter, Yona (Go Ah-sung).  Nam is the creator of the gates that separate the train cars, so Curtis’s troupe needs him if they’re going to get far.  Through one thing and another, Curtis, Nam, and Yona make it to the end, where the two men have a heart-to-heart about whether they should open the final gate that leads to Wilford, the Godot Character who rules the train, or just blow a hole in the side of the car they’re in and see if they can survive outside (Nam has evidence that the snow is melting, but it’s mostly a blind-faith idea).  Just in time, Curtis is invited to the obligatory Dinner at the Ivory Tower, after which he has to choose whether to become the new, erm, “conductor,” as it were.

The scene prior to this, nearly two hours into the film, is the first time anything is revealed about Curtis and his motivations.  It’s a pretty good scene, but we needed it much earlier, before the exhausting battles and slaughter.  Chris Evans can act; there’s no question about that after The Iceman, but it would be nice if he were given the opportunity to do so before we’re asked to support his violent coup.  Sadly, his steak dinner with Wilford, which is thankfully not rushed (and which reveals that, much like the revolution in The Matrix, this revolt was planned by Wilford and Gilliam in order to keep the population of the train under control), brings attention to an important bit of Fridge Logic: why does the caste system exist in the first place?  No reason is given for the horrid conditions of the tail section, and it’s not as if finances have anything to do with it, since there’s no currency in this particular dystopia, just the damn train.  And after enduring so much intense violence, the lack of answers or depth is a real groin-punch, and it opens the sluice gates for a zillion other questions we’d have been willing to keep quiet about if we’d gotten some attempt at resolution or character development: why, if Wilford has spent his entire life obsessed with trains, does he never use one bit of correct railroad terminology?  How/why did the government greenlight the construction of a train that spans the entire world and never stops running?  How does a community of people survive on pure protein, without fruits and vegetables, without getting scurvy?  Why does Curtis react the way he does when he realizes that the protein blocks are made of processed insects?  People eat those in real life, and in many areas, are pretty happy to have them.  What is Minister Mason (Swinton’s character) “minister” of?  Why is she, in all her madcap glory, cast aside early and replaced by a silent Übermook?  How does such a large percentage of such a small human society have the exact body-type and low-rent aspirations conducive to becoming monstrous security guards who stand in a room all day, waiting for opponents to show up?  Why do they wear black masks?  Why use unreliable weapons like axes when the exact outcome of the battle is so vital to Wilford’s plan?  Why does a genius like Wilford think that cutting down an already-reproductively-insignificant population by 70% will ensure the survival of the human race?  Why keep the tail-section people in filth, poverty, and boredom, without even giving them the option to work jobs or somehow contribute, and then blame them for being useless?  Why keep them alive at all if you only want them for their children, when the people in the front are clearly reproducing too?  How did Edgar ever know what steak smelled like if he was born on the train?  Why are all the women either bereft mothers or vilified?  Does anyone not comprehend what Mason’s painfully obvious innuendo about keeping the aquarium population balanced is an allegory for?

Most important of all, if Curtis’s anger is based around the fact that he hates himself for becoming a selfish, deranged cannibal when he and his people were first corralled into the tail section – a scenario that almost saw him kill and eat the infant Edgar, after killing his mother, when food was scarce – how does he so readily abandon Edgar to die at the hands of Wilford’s forces, and then later execute a woman at pointblank range, right after ordering one of his mates to kill yet another woman (this time a pregnant teacher played by Alison Pill)?  Are we really supposed to sympathize with him after this?  It’s almost as if Curtis was deepened as an afterthought, without retrospect.  Does he really think he’s going to make humanity better by killing most of the remaining people?  Are we supposed to be inspired by the ending, in which two whole people survive the ordeal?  Good news for the polar bears.  Not so much for the humans.

The problem is the same one so many films and TV series have: the abundance of answers, and complete absence of justifications.  The focus on plot and not on characters.  We can’t care about what happens if we don’t care about the people it happens to.  Again and again, these House of Cards plots dictate a film’s story, and any coincidental characterization serves only to string one noisy, desensitizing fight scene to the next one.  Everyone loves to guess who will still be alive by the end, rather than get to know anyone before they’re put on the chopping block.

One piece of advice for aspiring dystopians: don’t struggle to have a point.  Don’t orbit some shopworn theme or broad idea.  Have a character worth caring about, and don’t kill them for shock value.  The rest is pretty easy.

Snowpiercer (2014); based on the graphic novels Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob; written by Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson; directed by Bong Joon-ho; starring Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, Go Ah-sung, and Song Kang-ho.

 

Stoker

Shoemaggeddon

India StokerDoes Stoker mark the return of symbolism in film?  Regardless of how you read the interwoven narrative imagery, the post-Hitchcock camera acrobatics, and the sheer haunting uniqueness of it all, Stoker does things with cinematography unlike anything any of us are likely to see duplicated in the foreseeable future.

I may have used the term “image pattern” when looking at films before, but it’s a literary term, and this is the first film I’ve seen that uses image patterning in a literary way.  Consider the opening, in which a spider crawls up the stockinged leg of the lead character, India Stoker (the incomparable Mia Wasikowska) while she’s playing the piano.  An inexplicable sense of suspense follows the spider, despite the fact that we have no clue what kind of spider it is, whether it intends to harm her, or what it means if she smashes it.  But this scene is not resolved yet, despite the seemingly miniscule stakes relying upon its resolution.  Instead, since it revolves entirely around the image of the spider, it joins a string of short scenes, collected as the film’s story moves forward, that also revolve around nebulously-related imagery, including India lying in tall grass with a hunting rifle and awaiting her father’s (Dermot Mulroney) okay to take a critical shot at a fluttering bird; the image of the bird itself; people making snow-angels on surfaces other than snow; and others.  These scenes, which I might call micro-narratives, weave into the forward action in such a way that wondering where that spider ends up (and why) weighs as heavily on the audience as do thoughts about who’s going to live through the film’s central ordeal.  The starkest and most overt piece of imagery, though, focuses on India’s shoes and feet – we first see her popping a blister after running through the woods, realizing that she has outgrown her favorite shoes (unique blue-and-white low-tops which, were the world still small, would be selling out of department stores right about now).  But on her 18th birthday, as on every other birthday, she receives another pair of the same shoes.  I use the word “symbolism” because there are very clear “Who is what?” and “What means what?” questions silently posed to the audience through color and repetition.

The story that collects these images involves the young India, whose father, Richard, has recently died in a rather mysterious car accident.  India’s mother, Evelyn Stoker (Nicole Kidman), is known to be very dependent, and the wealthy Stoker family’s servants assume that India will be the one taking care of things from now on, not her mother.  Out of nowhere appears India’s uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who claims that since his brother is dead, he will temporarily stay with the family and help take care of their massive property during their time of grief.  The catch?  Neither Evelyn nor India ever knew that Richard had any siblings.  Evelyn, ever reliant on others, is intrigued by Charlie and welcomes all of his methods of comfort.  India, introverted and sheltered, doesn’t know what to make of her uncle.  Does he want to replace her father?  It doesn’t help that her relationship with her mother is strained and loveless, and that she will let no one touch her.  When Charlie claims that he just wants to be friends, India responds that “We don’t have to be friends.  We’re family.”

The beautiful and haunted piano/string score by Clint Mansell demands that this film take a turn for the macabre, and the red lights surround Uncle Charlie as soon as he appears.  What, we must wonder, does he want from the family?  Thankfully, India asks this the first time she’s alone with him, and we’re not left with a list of obvious questions that inept characters in horror movies never ask.  But the film’s sense of unsettling perplexity, not to mention what amounts to gorgeously-presented visual and aural poetry, allows us the knowledge that Charlie is the villain early on without ruining any of the intrigue.  During dinner with India’s visiting great-aunt Gin (Jacki Weaver), Evelyn mentions Charlie’s world travels, and a horrified look washes over Gin’s face before she tells Evelyn they need to talk about Charlie.  Before this can happen, Charlie murders her and a housekeeper who also seemed to know something about him.  Even more interesting is the fact that it seems like Charlie wants India to know about his penchant for killing and burying people (regardless, she finds out when she attempts to phone Auntie Gin at her hotel, and hears the latter’s ringtone coming from beneath the soil in the backyard).

Meanwhile, the greatest conflict is a case of Character vs. Self: India is eighteen and ready to wake up, ready to be “free,” as she puts it in a too-telling-but-not-telling-enough voiceover.  But she’s been cooped in her parents’ home her entire life and her only solace is in music.  She’s an accomplished pianist.  She is ostracized at school for being “weird” and seemingly asexual.  When she witnesses her mother and Charlie growing intimate, she imitates them and seeks the affections of Whip Taylor (Alden Ehrenreich), a classmate she trusts.  But she only wants to kiss him.  He has other plans, and attacks her.  Charlie, who shamelessly stalks India, materializes out of the shadows, and the body count rises.  She helps him bury the body, and we begin to worry for her.  Later, in the shower, she masturbates while thinking about the murder.  India, whose coming-of-age has seemingly been delayed, is awakening, but the admixture of Uncle Charlie and the violent nature of her own life prevent this awakening from being her own.

Through one thing and another, with the assorted micro-narratives vying for top-shelf plot importance, the truth comes out: Charlie, while on his apparent world travels, wrote dozens of letters to India as she grew, hoping to one day meet her.  The letters were intercepted by Richard, who locked them in his study for reasons unknown to India until she looks at the back of the envelopes and realizes that Charlie never traveled the world; he was shut away in a mental institution for most of his life.  India also discovers that her father and Charlie had another brother, Jonathan, whom Charlie killed as a child out of jealously for his relationship with Richard.  On India’s eighteenth birthday, Charlie was released from the institution, but then murdered Richard after the latter refused to let him meet India (and for good reason).  But India’s inner conflict is still approaching a boil, and she does not act out as we expect the protagonist of a thriller to do.  Charlie’s beautiful prose still dazzles her, and after another fight with her mother, she tells Charlie she will travel with him to New York.  He presents her with another box of shoes, but this time, they are not the identical blue-and-whites she has worn her entire life; these are high heels, the societal symbol of female adulthood (and, I might add, a patriarchal device for physically constraining women, and there’s something to be said for that here).  India steps into them and walks with ease.

Evelyn, realizing what is happening and reaching the point of ultimate fury at being unable to bond with her daughter, asks, “You were supposed to love me, weren’t you?”  When Charlie’s last plan before leaving the Stoker home is to seduce and kill Evelyn, expecting India to help him, the results are quite different, and as India brings out her old hunting rifle, the mosaic of micro-narrative images comes to a crescendo (as does Mansell’s score).  This scene – and this bears repeating – is so disparate from anything in recent film narrative, that it’s a miracle we are able to cling to the characters through the fantastically musical realization of virtually everything we have encountered in the film so far – including the spider.  It begins on the floor, makes its way up India’s leg, crawls up her thigh and past the hem of her skirt, and is last seen slipping across Charlie’s doornail-dead face.  No, India seems to say, I will not be controlled this way; this gift you gave me, I will give back.

The final scene, whether needed or not, poses some questions and answers other ones.  What kind of woman has India become?  Whether or not she’s leaving the Stoker home for good, and regardless of her methods, one thing is clear: she’s going to protect her family’s name, and to a separate-but-equal extent, her mother.

Mia Wasikowska, who gleamed as Jane Eyre in 2011, finally gets another starring role in which to showcase her various gifts.  Look at the difference in these performances.  More importantly, India is a strong character.  She’s layered and exists beyond her quirks, beyond what the plot calls for.  An introvert, a musician, a painter, a hunter. Reflexes like you’ve never seen.  A sheltered girl considering what it means to come of age before she goes ahead and does it.  Is the film commenting on womanhood?  I imagine that different viewers will have different readings of it, but all of the clues (think micro-narrative) must lead somewhere.  I am still flabbergasted that this film was scripted by Wentworth Miller (and kind of impressed that he submitted it using a pen name so that the film could be published upon its own merits and not his fame), an actor I would not have thought to possess such feminine sensibilities (violence notwithstanding).  The joke is on me.

This is an important film.

P.S. Thematic voiceover is still sloppy and flaccid.

Stoker_teaser_posterStoker (2013); written by Wentworth Miller; directed by Park Chan-wook; starring Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, and Nicole Kidman.