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The science fiction film genre offers so much potential. It’s too bad that it’s so easy to screw up (see this recent review). But then, you have movies like The Man Who Fell to Earth, something I once called “the last of the great sci-fi revolution.” Then, of course, there’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film I wrote my MA thesis on. It is among those inventive, quality movies that the 1973 animated film Fantastic Planet (La planète sauvage) stands. Now this film directed by René Laloux has been restored for 4K theatrical presentation, and it’s coming to our South Florida area thanks to the Miami Beach Cinematheque.

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Few films hang on to such threads of suspension of disbelief as Midnight Special. I’m even going to expect people to say the film fails for it, but its hook — the notion of faith — also applies to the audience. It is in this space of mystery that writer/director Jeff Nichols made his mark with Take Shelter (Take Shelter offers powerful entry into film’s recent history of schizophrenic cinema), as a sort of art house version of M.Night Shyamalan. Take Shelter follows a man (Michael Shannon) whose visions could either point to his insanity or a gift to portend the future. The story walks a thin line to keep the audience doubting the lead character until the film’s final, eerie shot. Nichols’s next film, Mud (Film review: Mud makes for OK film but misses exploiting the power of mystery), felt less impressive. It spent too much time trying to spell out the feelings of a young boy (Tye Sheridan) who decides to help a killer (Matthew McConaughey) hiding out on an island reunite with the woman he killed for (Reese Witherspoon). The film wasn’t bad, and it featured some strong performances. However, it felt over-long, dwelling on unnecessary exposition when Nichols already proved he could do a lot to propel a film by showing respect to the audience’s ability to infer while still tapping into its feelings.

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snowpiercer_ver20Snowpiercer is an enthralling, fast-moving sci-fi action film about a post-apocalyptic world where the few survivors of a frozen planet earth are the occupants of a train. The film starts off in 2031, a failed attempt at curbing rampant global warming is depicted by distant rockets streaking across clear blue skies, the voice of an unseen news anchor providing the background and an ominous symphonic score. Seventeen years later, all that is left of humanity are those who have boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that loops the globe once a year, without stopping thanks to a supposedly brilliant breakthrough in engineering called “the eternal engine.”

The entirety of the film’s action takes place within the train, a long, narrow series of cars, defined by a hellish class system, that gives off a feeling of oppressive, almost claustrophobic confinement, on more than one level. The action starts at the back of the train, where we meet Curtis,(Chris Evans) the reluctant hero with side-kick Edgar (Jamie Bell) as they strategize their escape from the back wagon. Under the counsel of wise elder Gilliam (John Hurt), Curtis and Edgar plot to take over the train and undo 17 years of injustice. The mammoth task soon seems insurmountable as we meet an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton playing Mason, the enforcer of control, keeper of the order and representative of Wilford (Ed Harris), the train’s inventor/conductor and its de facto ruler, whose sole concern is balance and order inside the moving train. Serving as spokesperson for Wilford, Mason talks at people in the back of the train— and therefore at the bottom of the social ladder— in a forceful tone, reminding them constantly to “keep their place.”

Tilda Swinton and officers in Snowpiercer

The rule-of-law inside the train, constantly moving at high speeds and bursting through errant snow drifts, makes use of not only heavy force but also information control. Mason is the best example of this mind control, as she exacerbates every statement with a heavy assertion of “… and so it is” with a ritualistic hand gesture. Beyond coercion and the train itself, power also emanates from the hegemonic Wilford through information and thought control. As Curtis and company move up towards the front of the train, they encounter an elementary school-level class of children in session. There, a teacher (Alison Pill) indoctrinates children on the life and many feats of their train conductor Wilford, and the laughable idea that things might be different by setting foot outside the train.

Tilda Swinton Snowpiercer still

The visual narrative of Snowpiercer is clearly inspired by graphic novels. The stunning quality of the fast-moving shots in many of the fight scenes feels like an extraordinary page-turner. There is an extended scene once the revolutionaries reach the “water” wagon. Here, the establishment gains the upper hand as the train enters a tunnel and lights go off. The frames, and the action within them, move so fast you’re almost afraid of blinking.

Besides these fast scenes, there are some serene moments that focus on the emotional state of its characters, a prime example is when one of the windows of the train breaks and a single snowflake drifts into the scene stopping door-cracking expert Kang-ho Song (Namgoong Minsoo) in his tracks. It is no surprise then, that South Korean director Joon-Ho Bong has said he was inspired by the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige. The aesthetics will please sci-fan fans as much as art house cinephiles. While the film is dark and crowded in the beginning, as our heroes move up to the front of the train they encounter light and what privilege looks like — a lot better in terms of creature comforts but also increasingly more bizarre with every door that they open.

Higher classes in train

Lest you think Snowpiercer is just another sci-fi, good-time film, there is an enduring quality to it. Its underlying environmental message points to the hubris of human control of its environment. Once you have living, breathing organisms, an ecosystem soon follows. Control of the environment necessarily goes together with coercion and in extreme cases — such as the self-contained train— there is also a political system that is hierarchical, the mantra of Wilford: “Everything in its place.” People, animals, everything is ordained. A rigid class system was developed and enforced via the compartments in the train, which inevitably led to authoritarianism.

The articulation of injustice done to humans and the environment is not subtle but is far more thoughtful than many of the action flicks produced by Hollywood every summer. Director Joon-ho Bong’s depiction of the class system and its ties to political and environmental factors is reminiscent of Robert Reich’s critique of the current American system of inequality. Indeed, this film redeems the best qualities of sci-fi: the ability of entertaining while depicting a satiric, exaggerated picture of the ills of the current times.

Snowpiercer runs 126 minutes and is rated R (expect some disturbing scenes of violence). It is playing exclusively in South Florida at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which is hosting a retrospective of Joon-ho Bong’s films throughout the month of July (see their calendar for details). For nationwide screening information visit the film’s official website (that’s a hot link).

Ana Morgenstern

(Copyright 2014 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)