This year’s best film is about the conflicted, young leader of a revolution but it’s NOT Mockingjay part 1
For a generation frequently derided as shallow we Millenials have remarkably dark tastes. Witness, for example, our infatuation with dystopias. We seem to devour Divergent, the Lovely Bones, Maze Runner and, the series which ignited this trend, the Hunger Games. The latest installment of the cinematic adaptation of which is out this weekend.
Like its predecessors, Mockingjay Part 1 is an impressive film. This was a series that was unlikely ever to go completely wrong; the filmakers could have shot Jennifer Lawrence filling out her tax returns and she’d still be compelling to watch. But the extent to which they’ve got in right is remarkable. Mockingjay 1 manages to be epic yet personal. It opens the story out to encompass the fate of the revolution against the Capital yet continues to anchor us to Katniss’ scared and confused perspective. It also evokes war very effectively as when it shows the residents of District 13 enduring an airstrike. And it’s remarkably bleak, especially for a such mainstream film, while still being inspiring.
The power of the Hunger Games films is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that Thai protestors have adopted the Mockingjay symbol as their own resulting in the film being banned in Thailand.
However, Mockingjay 1 is not this year’s best film about a revolution. That’s Snowpiercer, the most recent film by South Korean director Bong Joon Ho. It’s set in a near future in which an attempt to use geo-engineering to reverse global warming has plunged the Earth into a deep freeze. The last fragments of humanity are aboard a train powered by a perpetual motion machine. The passengers live in a rigidly hierarchical society: squalor at the back of the train, co-exists with opulence in first class. A young worker named Curtis (Chris Evans) galvanises those cheated by this system to rise up. However, as they drive towards the front of the train, the death toll begins to mount and Curtis finds himself doubting the morality of what he has done.
Snowpiercer is adapted not from a young adult novel but an obscure French comic. This may explain why it has not achieved the success of other recent dystopian films. While it broke box office records in Bong’s native South Korea, a dispute between him and the production company mean it has not had a cinematic release in either the UK or the US. I’ve only seen it because I’ve moved to Vietnam.
However, this commercial disadvantage has been an artistic boon. Snowpiercer does not have to gesture towards the tropes of young adult fiction: hence no forced loved triangles. Not dealing with immensely valuable intellectual property also gives Boon a lot of freedom. Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence more or less had to make a rather workman like film, a studio is not going to risk breaking new ground with such a valuable franchise. By contrast, Boon has the scope to experiment with the visuals and tone, and he uses it to the full. And Snowpiercer does not have to weaken its excellent cast by adding bland so-so teen performers like Hutcherson and Hemsworth.
Where it really gains the edge, however, is with its more apt and better directed satire. The Hunger Games might appear to be about the issue of the moment: the monopolisation of power and wealth by an elite. However, its real targets are reality TV and the celebrity culture. These are still worthwhile targets but in the light of the global crash they seem less of a priority than when Collins wrote the books in 2006. Snowpiercer, by contrast, is focused on one of the most alarming trends of recent years: the extent to which inequality is leading us to dehumanise those more or less fortunate than us. This is perhaps best illustrated by the character played by Tilda Swinton – a performance which ought to get her a best supporting actress Oscar – a first class passenger whose job is to hector those at the rear of the train for being lazy, disgusting and ungrateful. If you’ve ever wondered what the Daily Mail would be like if it became an individual person, watch Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer. However, what makes this aspect of the story particularly disturbing when we hear the same ideas being repeated by a class of cute first class children.
Moments like these are why I would implore you to seek out Snowpiercer. This is especially true if you have enjoyed the Hunger Games. It delivers a similarly intelligent mixture of darkness, heroics, action, world building and uncomfortable questions.