Yesterday, at Smash Cut Culture, Patrick Lehe wrote a fairly positive teaser review of Snowpiercer in his post, “Snowpiercer” Penetrates, Provokes and Gets Political.
Like Patrick, I was intrigued by the trailer and the critical hype. A lot of people were talking about this movie as a great example of fresh and original sci-fi cinema and as a fan of the genre, I was excited.
After seeing the film, however, I was tremendously disappointed. My suspension of disbelief was thoroughly destroyed early in the film and simply never returned. Consequently, I spent the baffling majority of the film wondering why things were happening on screen. It’s really hard to enjoy a cinematic experience when you are shaking your head with incredulity the entire movie.
Snowpiercer ended up being a relatively unique concept for a film without being all that good or coherent. However, instead of listing my specific, spoiler-ridden, criticisms of Snowpiercer here, today I want to talk about the importance of internal logic in cinema.
More than anything, to create a believable world that really captures an audience’s imagination, a story needs to make sense. In science fiction and fantasy stories, this is especially true, because audiences begin totally unfamiliar with the worlds and characters that the stories require them to accept. The setting and characters must be accepted realistic before an audience can fully engage in the story itself.
To be clear, what I mean is not that the story needs to exist in the real world or conform to known physical laws.
Great stories can have the most fantastical spaceships, amazing technology, superhuman abilities and magical powers, impressive landscapes and strange alien beasts. They can – and perhaps should – completely abandon anything known to mankind.
But once the rules of the world, the characters, and their abilities are established, they have to be consistent and make sense throughout the rest of the story. Great writers establish a complex and rich universe: They give you the “rules”, and stick to them. And that consistency creates an opportunity to have a really character driven story that makes sense on its own terms.
So, believability really matters.
Science fiction and fantasy stories have the potential to talk about big ideas and create grand allegories for humanity and really say something about people in a way that few other genres can accomplish, but they can only do that if the audience buys into the universe as it’s presented.
The real beauty of the genre is that when it’s believable, it’s perfect for creating compelling stories about deep-rooted facets of human nature in a way that is totally outside the real-world human experience and frees an audience to look at an idea from a fresh perspective.
Brazil shows the absurdity of overwhelming bureaucracy. Blade Runner wrestles with the ethics of cloning and questions the nature of humanity. The Iron Giant shows us that violence is a choice, and xenophobia is often more dangerous than seemingly scary monsters. Pan’s Labyrinth uses fantasy and escapism to viscerally express the terror of living as a little girl under fascist Spain. Big Fish tackles the nature and significance of exaggeration vs. truth in creating distance in the relationship between a father and son.
Snowpiercer is a film that desperately wants to say something about class and economic inequality, but I found it to be so ridiculously unbelievable and silly as a story that the message can’t be taken seriously either.
Considering how many science fiction and fantasy genre films are written to be allegories about humanity and modern social issues, you’d think that writers presenting a social message would take believability a lot more seriously with their films.
Most science fiction and fantasy genre movies ignore this important point.
A few logic cheats are fine, of course, but the problem with writing that lacks coherence is that, as a viewer, it eventually becomes very hard to ignore major lapses in consistency. The more audiences question the veracity of a sequence of events given what they’re told of a character’s motivations, or the world those characters inhabit; the more audiences get taken out of the experience of the story itself.
For me, that’s exactly what happened when watching Snowpiercer, to the point where instead of thinking about social issues like class stratification, I was running a play-back in my mind of the several dozen sequences in the film that made absolutely no sense.
A science fiction movie especially lives or dies on the audience buying into the vision of the film. And once you’ve lost your audience, it’s very hard to regain their interest.
Maintaining believability and respecting an audience’s suspension of disbelief is crucial for any story-teller trying to build a world that feels real; and that kind of reality is absolutely essential for audiences to actually buy into the allegory as it’s presented.
Anyone who wants to use story-telling to present big ideas about society and human nature should probably keep this in mind.
Bong Joon-Ho, I’m looking at you.