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Joon-ho Bong's 'Snowpiercer': just see it already

March 13, 2015

Written to avoid giving everything away, but some spoilers couldn't be helped:


Perhaps because they both feature memorable scenes with edible bars Snowpiercer reminded me of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Of course, such a compartmentalized journey towards promised truths as the one directed by Joon-ho Bong is also reminiscent of the always popular Alice in Wonderland or the ever prosaic Matrix trilogy. This story is not a new one. Plato could recite it. After all, what is a train but a cave traveling at hundreds of miles per hour? However, the trick to presenting familiar questions with even more familiar answers—such as a revolution waiting on a messiah—is always in the presentation. A cave becomes Wonderland becomes Oz becomes a farm with rebellious pigs becomes a chocolate factory becomes a train. Often times, these changes in illusory settings are cosmetic. But the grittiness of Bong’s train allows for alternative solutions, seemingly.


This was a literal glass ceiling and not a metaphor because the factory never dies. 
Unlike so many of its predecessors, Snowpiercer works painstakingly hard against allegory’s tendency towards messianic reductions. This film does not seek to place Curtis (Chris Evans) in a glass elevator. His fate is not to become Wilford (Ed Harris). While most fables appeal to the inner pawn in their audiences, Snowpiercer follows this trajectory and then abandons it. This train is not Narnia. The Peter character will not do Aslan’s bidding. This plot is not a chess game of succession. And therefore Curtis opts to destroy Wilford’s infinite engine. 

This act of mutual destruction is not so much the hitting of a reset button but a turn towards fatalism. Only two people survive this choice. And yet, just as easily no one could have survived. The derailing of a train, allegorical or otherwise, is unpredictable and therefore a risk. Curtis takes this risk. Moreover, an entire ensemble takes this risk.  

If this film has one messiah, then it has several. And yet through Curtis’ agency we see that a second Genesis can come only through despair, not faith.  Curtis does not undo an entire world of metal because he believes in something greater so much as he destroys what the world has been twisted into because he cannot handle any further despair. He does not know what may come of his actions, only that what exists is already worse than death. Fatalism and redemption here, in Snowpiercer, are of a similar kind. And so Curtis makes a death wish, which is also his request to be forgiven. His effort to pull a child from the engine’s clutches—the sacrificing of his own physicality—is also an effort to pull the memory and taste of human flesh from his past. But only death can accomplish such a miracle. And this film contains death in abundance.

You know, but with a badass polar bear.
In the last frame, the cold, frozen world is barren, except for a polar bear. The image relies on a wild and vagrant hope similar to what occurs in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, when a domesticated fox and a still savage wolf salute one another with a sentimental sense of awe and mourning. An understanding of their mutual beginnings and eventual partings. Bong’s film is also like this. It begins and ends in ways that are familiar, but the journey from one point to another in a very old plot feels as fresh and dripping as blood from an ax. 

Bryan Harvey can be followed on Twitter @LawnChairBoys. 

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