Snowpiercer is the type of film that while you’re watching it, you get the distinct sense you’ll never see anything like this again. You’re almost amazed that director Bong Joon Ho got $40 million to make a film like this. It takes certain artistic cues from films before it, but it creates something wholly unique.
Adapted from a French graphic novel “La Transperceneige”, the plot takes place in a future where an experiment to combat global warming went awry, sending the planet into an eternal ice age, with the last remnants of humanity living on an equally eternally running train that circles the globe. Major class disparity has set in since the beginning, and now a revolution led by Curtis (Chris Evans), his mentor Gilliam (John Hurt – one of many loving allusions to Terry Gilliam), his right-hand man Edgar (Jamie Bell) and confidante mother Tanya (Octavia Spencer). To get to the front, they break security expert/junkie Namgoong Minsoo and his daughter Yona (Kang-ho Song and Ah-Sung Ko playing father and daughter again for Bong Joon Ho) – who are both addicted to smelly industrial waste rocks called Kronole – out of prison to help them get to the front. The further they get to the engine/front of the train, the more distortingly deified the train’s conductor/inventor (a bit of casting best left as a surprise) becomes.
Chris Evans spends most of the film serving as a rock solid foundation for the audience to follow through this heightened reality and heightened characters with. But late in the 3rd act he gets a monologue that features some of the best acting from Evans – all the stonefaced complexions come crashing down revealing what got him to that mindset in the first place. Tilda Swinton has a lot of fun (and so do we watching her) as Mason, a minister from the front of the train channeling a messy disturbed version of Margaret Thatcher. Allison Pill gives a scene-stealing performance as a gung-ho elementary school teacher, making for a hilariously dark and campy treat of a scene. John Hurt, Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer perform admirably in their supporting roles, and it’s great to see an actor as talented as Kang-ho Song get a role that will hopefully gain him more international recognition.
Bong Joon Ho continues to establish himself as one of the best and most inventine working directors. He directs the film with the same sense of propulsion and forward movement that the train does. The camera rarely stays still, and I might be wrong but he rarely seemed to use the same angle/shot twice. He’s able to oscillate between moments of drama, comedy, camp, suspense and action with ease – sometimes combining all of them in the same scene without losing one emotion to the other. Many have called this an anti-blockbuster, and that’s a valid opinion. At points it feels that Bong Joon Ho is commenting on the blockbuster when one character points out that the revolution that’s been taking place on the train is formulaic and predictable, save for Curtis’s leadership. Snowpiercer takes the form of the blockbuster, but it is unlike any blockbuster to come before it.
Marco Beltrami produces some of his most effective scoring since 3:10 to Yuma, his tempo right in line with Bong Joon Ho’s direction – always moving forward. At some of the most heightened moments he adopts the familiar sounds of a train rolling forward to great effect. The production design is exquisite. Each cart of the train has it’s own aesthetic and history, contributing to the whole identity of the film.
The action in this film is stunning. Even in a year with The Raid 2: Berandal, Snowpiercer still stands as having some of the most wondrously crafted action sequences you’ll see this year. From a night-vision scene, to a resurgence thanks to fire and a one shot sequence featuring Curtis mowing his way through a cart full of soldiers, this is some jaw-dropping edge of your seat level of action. Bong Joon Ho uses the enclosed spaces of this train to produce action sequences that are incredibly inventive. Even though this film has that Summer blockbuster feel to it, it treats it’s violence much more importantly than most Summer blockbusters do. A lot of death happens in this film, but no death is empty or glorified. Even when you’re rooting for a death, you still feel the loss of life.
It’s become well known the post-production troubles this film has had with US distribution. Distributor Harvey Weinstein wanted 20 minutes cut from the film, refusing to release it. He relented eventually, only to put the film out in an extremely limited release in the hopes of burying it. Shame on you Harvey Weinstein. This is a film that should – and easily could – be the box office smash of the summer if Weinstein would let it. Snowpiercer is exactly the type of film that can be marketed to an international audience, the type of film that is built to succeed in today’s globalized market. It has already earned double its production costs worldwide, simply proving its appeal. I urge everyone to go out and see this film to boost an expanded release and revenue surge in the states. Snowpiercer is a once in an era type of film, and although it is surely going to be a cult classic, it deserves much more recognition.