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18 Things We Learned from the ‘Snowpiercer’ Commentary

By  · Published on October 16th, 2014

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Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s latest film, Snowpiercer, is about a train-shaped metaphor hurtling around the planet’s surface at high speed. Inside a rebellion is unfolding as the train’s lower class citizens begin a fight towards the front of the train where they believe they’ll find answers, freedom and the life they feel they deserve. It’s an entertaining film filled with solidly crafted action, a strong visual sense and an international sensibility evident in its cast, crew and themes.

The Blu-ray (pre-order it now from Amazon) features a commentary track that, much like the film itself, is a bit different from the norm. Instead of featuring a member of the cast or crew the track consists of a film critic hosting a series of five additional critics who join him one at a time to offer insight and thoughts on the film. Usually critics on commentary tracks act as moderator for the talent or are there to discuss an older film for which no cast/crew members remain alive, but neither of those are the case here. They are film critics – and friends to varying degree of myself and this site – but they’re understandably not here fully in that capacity. Instead, they’re here as fans of the movie, and they use their time to talk about the elements of the film they love as opposed to offering anything that could be perceived as negative criticism.

Also worth noting, while we’re used to seeing the studio’s warning that the commentary track is the opinion of the speakers come up as a pre-load screen (similar to the FBI warning), this disc gives that warning a second time. When you select the commentary option from the special features menu the warning reappears saying “The following audio commentary is for entertainment purposes only.” It then requires you to accept it to move forward.

Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer.

Snowpiercer (2013)

Commentators: Scott Weinberg (Geek Nation), James Rocchi (MSN Movies), William Goss (Austin Chronicle), Drew McWeeny (HitFix), Jennifer Yamato (Deadline), Peter S. Hall (Movies.com)

1. Weinberg sees Marco Beltrami’s score as a fantastically original piece, but he also believes it’s an homage to older science fiction films.

2. Rocchi draws an unlikely but astute comparison between Snowpiercer and Dogtooth, and suggests the pair would make a great double feature. He sees the Greek film as a dictatorship “boiled down to a household” where the parents control the kids to the most minute detail and level, and Bong’s film echoes that on a train. Both films feature characters who live lives based solely on what they’ve been told, but “significant parts of that myth are also a lie.”

3. Ewen Bremner’s character is supposed to have his arm out the portal for seven minutes, but it’s actually only out there for three minutes and forty-seven seconds! This is sloppy sci-fi people.

4. Rocchi’s favorite element of the film is Chris Evans. “His performance, the meat and blood and bone and sinew and heart of it is the connective tissue that keeps the film’s more ungainly and improbable moments deeply connected to a visceral sense of…” something. Weinberg cuts him off, but let’s assume the last word is “wonder.” Weinberg!

5. It seems logical that the back part of the train lacks windows as the lower class is viewed as undeserving, but the front third is also sealed away from glimpses of the outside world. The middle of the train – ostensibly representative of the middle class – is the only section that gets and is interested in sunlight and a view.

6. Okay, maybe I’m just dense, but I did not catch on that to the apparent fact that the scene where the masked enforcers slice up a fish and dip their axes into the carcass occurs because the fish blood is poisonous. Am I the only one who missed that implication?

7. Weinberg and Goss highlight the night-vision fight scene for its visual power and the shifting of power. The two sides seem even at first, but the upper hand goes to the enforcers when they switch to night vision and begin to slaughter the rebels in the dark. It shifts again when “a stick of fire, the most primal tool you can imagine” is introduced to level the playing field yet again. Neither of them comment on the rebels’ poor tactics – ie don’t stand there twiddling your thumbs (or stumps as it were) while the bad guys take time to suit up. Attack!

8. Goss’ favorite element of the film is its sheer narrative. He admires the simplicity of the story – characters moving forward towards a stated goal – and rightly wishes that more big movies would be content keeping their focus centered and small instead of complicating things with unnecessary information.

9. Weinberg suggests that the best movie villains are the ones who don’t see themselves as the bad guy. “That is the beauty of this is that the Tilda Swinton character and later the Wilford (Ed Harris) character are so devout in their beliefs. They’re so certain. They are the ruling class, this is the system how it should be, and the human spirit has no place for that.”

10. Weinberg and McWeeny discuss the film’s various cinematic influences starting with the most obvious, Terry Gilliam. “In addition to Gilliam I think you see distinctly French influences,” says McWeeny, citing Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (The City of Lost Children) as having a strong influence on Snowpiercer’s production design. He also sees Korean influences, particularly in the above mentioned train car fight’s stylistic ode to Oldboy (from director Park Chan-wook, who also acts as producer on this film).

11. One of the bigger criticisms of the film – and one I happen to agree with – is that for all the elements that work the movie fails when it comes to world building. Weinberg and McWeeny disagree and touch on the issue during the scene where the rebels first enter the aquarium car. “I don’t need to buy it literally,” says McWeeny in regard to the world that Bong has created here. He believes it’s a callback to sci-films of the past where “the giant metaphor was the reason for the movie, and you didn’t have to buy it as a literal thing.” He offers examples like Zardoz, Silent Running and Soylent Green, but I would argue that those (last two) examples work because they also managed to create believable worlds.

12. McWeeny offers some interesting insight into the classroom scene, its Little House on the Prairie model and its place in Bong’s international commentary. “This is such an international movie, and there’s such a particular point of view going on here,” he says. “A Korean filmmaker working from a French graphic novel for an American company, it’s given him permission to tell this story in a way that he roasts everybody equally, and he uses symbolism to paint everybody a certain way, and I don’t think he let’s anybody off the hook.” This scene though is aimed specifically at the United States. “There’s a reason that it’s in a schoolroom, and there’s a reason that it ends up with guns, and there’s a reason it’s about indoctrination. And I think he’s kind of summed up how the rest of the world sees us and our schooling right now.”

13. All respect to Weinberg who I think does a great job hosting the commentary, but he gets an unintentional laugh during his thoughts on how Bong structured the scene so that once the classroom descends into gun play we no longer see the children. “You don’t see the children anywhere! You don’t even see them leave,” he says – at the literal moment where we see the children leave.

14. McWeeny’s favorite element of the film is that it even got made at all.

15. The film made a combined $8 million in US theaters and on VOD, but it made ten times that on the international market.

16. Yamato’s favorite element of the film is its ability to make thought-provoking entertainment that raises questions without providing the easy answers.

17. Weinberg and Hall draw comparisons between Snowpiercer and most other post-apocalyptic films in both its disinterest in convincing viewers that this future can be our own as well as its disregard for typically drab color schemes. “Post-apocalyptic movies these days are very grim,” says Hall, adding “they’re very ugly. They all exist in a world where everything is brown.”

18. Hall’s favorite element of the film is what it represents. “There’s a different way of making movies and releasing movies today that didn’t exist fifteen years ago.”

Best in Commentary

Final Thoughts

Snowpiercer is a flawed but ultimately entertaining film, and the same can be said for this critics commentary. The audio has minor issues – the five guest critics are recorded over the phone, and they’re occasionally tough to hear/understand – and the talk sometimes goes off on general tangents far removed from the specifics of Snowpiercer. They discuss the critics’ role in talking about a film, the negative effect of “armchair critics” and the merits of VOD distribution, and while there are interesting thoughts here it’s also a lot of time spent not talking about the movie at hand. Still, that’s ultimately far from a real problem as the conversations and commentary remain engaging and based in a love of films. It’s an interesting experiment and one I wouldn’t mind seeing repeated on future releases.

Check out more commentary commentary in the Commentary Commentary archives

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.