Wish List: “Snowpiercer” for Best Picture
“Wish List” is an ongoing column that explores our hopes and desires for the yearly onslaught that is awards season, while also occasionally looking back and fantasizing a rewrite of years past.
It’s too much to ask for it to actually win, so one of my wishes for this year’s Best Picture race is that “Snowpiercer” will at least get a nomination. Now that the Academy has expanded the field to include up to ten nominees, there’s plenty of room. It’s got the pedigree, at least – critics loved it to the tune of a 95% (!) score on Rotten Tomatoes – and if this were a higher profile film, with bigger stars or some studio cash behind it, it would have been the talk of the summer (it was released in July), right up there with “Guardians of the Galaxy” (which was almost the subject of this article, but stands a better chance since it does have some studio cash).
While we’re talking studio cash, “Snowpiercer” had at least some cash behind it in the form of the Weinstein Company. The story going around is that the Weinsteins wanted director Bong Joon-ho to cut twenty minutes for the American release, with the ultimatum that if he didn’t then they wouldn’t give the film their full marketing support. Bong Joon-ho trusted his audience and refused to compromise – that alone is worth some recognition, no? Still, it’s a shame the film didn’t get the marketing exposure it deserved to build an audience, so it would be nice for it to get some awards attention.
The film’s running time is still only 126 minutes, or 40 minutes shorter than mega-blockbuster “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” so it’s a mystery why the Weinsteins were worried. And unlike most summer blockbusters, “Snowpiercer” actually justifies its runtime. Set in a future where man’s only remaining survivors are trapped on a massive train hurtling around the globe in an endless loop, the film makes good use of that time to immerse viewers in the claustrophobic life of the train’s passengers. I saw it in a tiny, dank, basement theater which only added to the feeling – coming back into the outside world was a literal breath of fresh air, so thoroughly does the movie suck you in.
In the film, the outside world has been frozen to inhospitable temperatures, but on the train society exists as it always has – with the wealthy and privileged living comfortably and safely (at the front of the train), while the lower classes are segregated in the back, living in squalor, packed on top of each other like chickens in a coop). For the back passengers, life is a non-stop struggle of wills to survive. All of life’s necessities are rationed out to them by the front, and they have no control over their destiny. They can’t even protect their children, who are periodically snatched from the clutches of their parents and hauled to the front – never to be seen again, and for reasons that are never clear.
Fed up at the injustice, a small band from the back led by Curtis (Chris Evans) decide they will storm their way to the head of the train and confront Wilford, the train’s creator, conductor and leader. The action scenes are wildly inventive – each train car presents a new challenge that ranges from the darkly comic to the flat-out creepy. It’s a lot of fun to watch and is expertly put together. A more imaginative Academy might also single out the film’s set and costume design as well as cinematography and editing.
What really sets the film apart, though, is that it is the rare action movie that dares the audience not only to think, but to think for themselves. The film allows the story to play out without passing judgment or cueing the audience. Placed in such an extreme situation as the characters in the film, who knows what we would be capable of. Even one of the more sinister characters, Mason (a wicked Tilda Swinton) – who is in charge of choosing a child to steal from the back – is given some sympathy when taken hostage by Curtis and his gang. Eventually, Curtis is faced with a choice that forces him (and the audience) to completely question all that’s happened and everything he thought he knew. The film never suggests that there is a right or wrong answer to the choice. Instead, it forces the viewer to look within, which can be a scarier proposition.
Most Best Picture winners fall into the emotional category of “inspirational, or “feel-good.” Or, worse, they can feel like medicine – not much fun, but good for you. Here’s how I would describe “Snowpiercer”: thrilling, daring, and thought-provoking. I’ll take that against those others any day.
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