Snowpiercer (2013)

2018 #251
Bong Joon Ho | 126 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | South Korea & Czech Republic / English & Korean | 15 / R

Snowpiercer

Before we knew about Harvey Weinstein’s real, vile crimes, his offences against cinema were already widely discussed. From manipulating the Oscars to re-editing foreign films himself before distribution, he’d managed to become powerful often at the expense of films themselves. Snowpiercer was another example: having acquired distribution rights while the movie was in production, Weinstein later insisted on severe cuts (reportedly 20 minutes) and changes (adding opening and closing monologues), but co-writer/director Bong Joon Ho refused. It was eventually released in the US uncut, but only on a limited number of screens, and the planned worldwide distribution either didn’t happen or was curtailed — I don’t know about other countries where Weinstein had the rights, but there was no UK release at all. But the downfall of Weinstein has seen the rights to various films shopped to other distributors, and so Snowpiercer finally made it onto Amazon Video in the UK last November, and as of this week is available to Netflix subscribers. For my part, I heard the good reviews back on its US release and, with no sign of it coming to the UK, imported the US Blu-ray when it came out in 2014; but, me being me, I only actually got round to watching it last year.

Based on the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer is set in the far future, after an apocalyptic event has left the world an arctic wasteland. What survives of humanity all live on the titular train, which constantly circles the planet. The rich people live in luxury at the front; the poor people live in squalor at the back. Numerous attempted uprisings by the lower class have failed, but, with nothing to lose but their shitty lives, they’re going to try again.

The War Doctor, Captain America, and Billy Elliot step aboard a train...

Yeah, it’s a pretty out-there, not-at-all-plausible premise, but just go with it and the film has rewards aplenty. If you want to get intellectual, the train’s societal structure and how it’s maintained offers an allegorical commentary about class divides and the interdependence of the oppressed and the oppressors. But if that sounds a bit heavy, the film wraps it up in a pulse-pounding action thriller, dressed up further with mysterious backstories ripe for exposing and an array of memorable performances, not least Tilda Swinton as a toothy commandant. So, it’s by turns seriously thought-provoking, outrageously hysterical, and wondrously exciting — there are several superbly staged action sequences as our heroes literally battle their way up the train.

It may’ve taken an unconscionably long time to reach our shores — but hey, what could be more British than a mega-train only turning up after a mega-delay? Unlike our shoddy rail service, however, Snowpiercer proves worth the wait

5 out of 5

Snowpiercer is available on Netflix UK now.

It placed 3rd on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018. I watched it as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

Olympus Has Fallen (2013)

2015 #55
Antoine Fuqua | 107 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Olympus Has FallenThe first of Summer 2013’s “Die Hard in the White House” movies, Olympus Has Fallen casts Gerard Butler as the top Secret Service agent who’s also super chummy with President Aaron Eckhart and his kid (Finley Jacobsen). However, after Something Goes Wrong™, Butler is moved to a desk job… but then, when the White House is attacked by terrorists, he’s the only good guy left standing inside. You know the rest, even if you haven’t seen White House Down.

The remarkable thing, watching both movies, is just how many plot beats are so similar. Even when they’re not exactly the same, they’re functionally identical. For example, a plane shoots up Washington merely as a distraction to get the President sent to the White House’s bunker; in White House Down, an explosion at the Capitol is staged merely as a distraction to get the President sent to the White House’s bunker. Both films feature a kid sneaking around the building; a former-Secret-Service traitor-in-their-midst; major characters, including the Speaker of the House, managing the crisis remotely… At least the villains are different: White House Down was based on the Middle East conflict, the villains being Americans wanting it to continue; Olympus Has Fallen is based on the Korean conflict, with nasty foreign villains. Maybe that’s why America liked this better: foreign bogeymen rather than unpatriotic Americans. To be frank, the latter is more interesting.

The real problem with Olympus Has Fallen is that it’s just as daftly OTT as White House Down, but with none of the self-awareness. There are slow-motion shots of characters screaming “no” as someone dies; bullet-torn American flags are tossed to the ground… It’s just as clichéd, but without the knowing wink that makes the other one fun. Foreign bogeymenIn fact, it takes itself very seriously indeed — Fuqua even puts characters’ names and jobs up on screen, as well as timecodes and locations, as if it’s a dramatisation of a real event. Obviously we all know it isn’t, making it feel incredibly odd. The CGI is just as bad as White House Down’s, though the exterior White House stuff looks more real than the obviously-greenscreen locales of the other film. Strikingly, this cost less than half as much ($70m vs. $150m).

On the bright side, the battle on the White House lawn is a good sequence. It’s played as straight as the rest of the film, but on this occasion it works. That said, it’s still just a big shoot-out, of which equally-strong examples can be found in many other action films. White House Down may come up a little short in the exceptionally-memorable sequences stakes too, but at least things like the car chase around the White House lawn — complete with the President firing a rocket launcher! — are trying a bit harder to be original.

Most of the time, the po-faced-ness would render this no more than an adequate and semi-forgettable actioner. By direct comparison to White House Down and all its irreverent fun, This. Is. AMERICA!however, Olympus Has Fallen looks like a far lesser movie. It’s a shame it made it out of the gate first, and that some viewers are not blessed with enough of a sense of humour, because their comparative success has left some quarters with the impression this is the better movie and White House Down is just a clone. Hopefully that’s a wrong we can eventually right.

3 out of 5

Sequel London Has Fallen is out in October.