Film Junk Take Two: Snowpiercer and District 9

take2_district9snowpiercer

Take Two is a new feature where we arbitrarily choose two movies and compare them. Then we call out the smart moves, the epic misses, and leave you with a takeaway. Assuming there is one. Let the comments begin.

In our second Take Two, we look at the recent Snowpiercer and one of the better SF films of recent years, District 9. Not an odd pairing at all, they both explore the effects of social injustice. In Snowpiercer, it’s about what humans in a confined, self-sustaining environment do to each other. In District 9, the players are humans and aliens. The aliens come off as well as the humans.

Warning: Light spoilers ahead. However, if you haven’t seen these movies by now, you’re probably in the wrong seat.

Snowpiercer

District 9

A Social Conscience Runs Deep

This Revolution is by the Book
Although the elite running the Snowpiercer train and the downtrodden “raw material” at the back are at odds, the uprising that drives the plot is conventional and predictable but with a few appealing set pieces. Some suspense is generated as the rebels fight their way through the train’s militia and the different cars in its ecosystem. Varied and sometimes even surprising, the passion that created this story never quite invigorates the film.
First Contact Makes You Special. But Not in a Good Way.
The overarching irony of District 9 is how well the humans treat the aliens just like ordinary humans. They go right to the bottom of the pecking order. Even lower than the Nigerians. As the ultimate cultural misfits, they eat cat food and scavenge refuse dumps earning the racial slur “prawns”. Then Blomkamp doubles down on the irony. He shows aerial views of the prawns’ homes – tiny shacks and sheds crammed together on dirt lots. Not a set, they are the real homes of Johannesburg’s current underclass.

A Good Plot Trumps Eye Candy Any Day

Das Boot es is Nicht
Bong is recognized for his grand, tapestry-like visuals with active foregrounds and backgrounds often shown in one long take. But trying to visualize a revolution in the submarine-like confines of a world-circling train shorted the creative juices needed to energize the plot. The effort to add a cool twist by revealing the collusion between the front and the back of the train just doesn’t deliver the payoff the story needs.
Precision Plot
Blomkamp incisively demonstrates that a fine-tuned plot kills. He establishes four groups each with competing agendas. They all beat on our hero Wikus, unwittingly playing the lead in a Whac-a-mole session. As each agenda surges to a peak, Wikus struggles to pop back up just in time for the next whack. With sharp pacing and fast editing, the director wastes no time in getting the audience up to speed.

Best McGuffin?

Very Curious
The McGuffin in Snowpiercer is what you might call a duct tape concept. The idea works but it ain’t pretty. In this case, it’s a substance called kronole. Its primary purpose is to power the Snowpiercer’s engine. As you might expect, it’s explosive. What you might not expect is that it’s also a drug. And the genius who designed the access to the train’s cars is an addict. The plot moves along but quite bumpily. (Second candidate: that fish. The Internet cloud mind still hasn’t agreed on what that was all about).
Who Forgot the Mobil Card?
District 9’s opening scenes jar us into another reality. A truly huge alien ship hovers over a city while TV talking heads background us on the inadvertent first contact: the ship with 1.2 million aliens coasted to a stop over Johannesburg apparently out of what we humans would call gas. And the ensuing refinement of said “gas” becomes the fuel for Wikus’ skin-crawling transformation and powers the concluding twenty minutes of the film.

Acting Chops

Animating an Archetype
Tilda Swinton displays consummate skill by putting flesh and blood onto a classic comic trope – the blindly obedient right hand of the evil boss. Swinton embodies the singular-minded loonyness of a character – Emerson – that only the comic book genre can inspire. With a mindless belief in the righteousness of the Engineer’s guiding hand, she constantly exhorts the train’s passengers to adhere to the train’s social codes. She is a sterling example of an actor inhabiting the soul of an imaginary character to its nuttiest depths.
A Calculated Risk Won
The aliens in District 9 aren’t pretty. With their crustacean “faces” and organ-bin bodies, they look like a living autopsy. But the story needs the audience to empathize with their circumstances. Amazingly, Blomkamp pulls it off – particularly with the principal alien aka (alien known as) Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope). He functions at a higher level than the other prawns. And as he approaches restoring power to his ship, you feel his frustration, hopelessness, rage, and love (for his alien “son”). His eyes may be alien but they reveal the soul of a sentient being. It’s CGI/MOCAP at its most promising.

Comics vs. Video Games

Extreme Characters
No surprise here. Along with the aforementioned Emerson, Bong trots out more comic book archetypes. (Yes the original story is from a “graphic novel” but do we want to have that discussion now?). One of the cars is a classroom of young children. Their teacher is a sweet, young, pregnant blonde with a machine gun. She believes in the Engineers too as she mows down the onrushing revolutionaries without a thought for the consequences.
Shoot That
Although District 9 delivers a gripping drama of humans and aliens for the better part of the movie, the last 20 minutes default to a video game shoot out with all the splatter and carnage we have come to love. Admittedly it’s well done with terrific editing. The sequence maniacally jumps between close ups of Wikus manning a fearsome battle suit as he turns into a warrior and aerial shots of firefights in the shanty town. Thank the director for no close ups of the dismemberment of the soldier’s commanding officer. Gotta draw the line somewhere.

Finessing a Detail into a Dramatic Flourish

It’s the Right Arm
One of the (few) singular moments in Snowpiercer is a sequence that shows Emerson applying the Engineer’s justice to an unlucky back-of-the-train citizen. A porthole in the train car is opened and the guilty right arm is pushed through it. Given the high speed of the train and the sub-zero temperatures outside, the arm – still attached but frozen solid – is pulled back in. A sledge hammer executes the sentence. Barbarism nicely finessed.
It’s the Left Arm
As Wikus follows his orders to transfer the aliens to a new camp, he discovers weapons, banned computers, and a nursery (and one of the most delicious black humor moments in the film). In one shack, he discovers a lab producing a black fluid. Inadvertently he ingests it and starts the transformation of his left arm into an alien claw. It doesn’t stop there. And this thread provides an emotional ending on a visual par with the Statue of Liberty in the first Planet of the Apes.

In the End, Do We Care?

I Think Not
With his focus on making the screen a wall of visuals, Bong’s characters come in a distant second leaving no connections for the audience. Aside from Swinton, his actors are curiously flat. Clearly the leader of the revolution, Curtis (Chris Harris) is transformed by the car-to-car battle. But he seems remote even in his heartfelt agony. Ed Harris as the Engineer is another example – a role that calls for gravitas or wackiness or visionary comes across distant and unremarkable.
A Simple Yes
Blomkamp focuses on the humanity of all his characters. And that includes the aliens. In so doing he engages our sympathy for both the unfortunate aliens and even more so for Wikus. From a bumbling bureaucrat to a hardened warrior to a new being, his transformation is sensitive and highly engaging. A shout out to Sharlto Copley in his first big screen acting role and to Blomkamp for never losing sight of what makes us human.

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  • FDB

    I like this feature.

  • Jonny Ashley

    I like this feature too.

  • Jesse Bajenaru

    I’ll third this.

  • Make it a video

  • Samb

    If I hadn’t just re-watched “Snowpiercer”, I’d have taken issue with your lukewarm response to it….but it suffers on a re-watch. Being familiar with the world it creates means the characters within it are more important the second time around, and they are as flat as you say (Swinton excepted).

  • Deven Science

    Just recently rewatched District 9, and it was still a five star movie. It holds up well.

  • Jameson

    I like both films a lot, but I think you’re a bit harsh on Snowpiercer. In terms of acting, Chris Evans is very good in this. The scene when he sees John Hurt shot on the screen is handled well. In terms of the loony-ness in the film, I take that less as comic book characterization and more with the quirkiness found in a lot of Asian cinema, most notably Bong Joon-Ho. If anything, I’d say the film’s biggest success is joining Asian-style direction with an American-style narrative.

  • Jared Kerr

    Yeah, Snowpiercer was a bit underwhelming, but pretty enjoyable on the first watch. I cannot read the whole article though. It cuts off after the Snowpiercer section…