Every revolution has a cost and the cost is high in Bong Joon-ho’s sci-fi action flick “Snowpiercer”. This is the Korean filmmaker’s first feature since “Mother” from 2009. “Mother” was my first exposure to Bong Joon-ho and my christening of sorts into the art of Korean cinema. “Snowpiercer” is a much different film yet it doesn’t stray too far away from the style and approach which lies at the heart of this auteur.
Despite the efforts of blowhard extraordinaire Harvey Weinstein, “Snowpiercer” has finally made its way to the United States. Weinstein acquired the North American rights for the film with a wide release planned. But the pompous film mogul demanded that 20 minutes of footage be cut and when Joon-ho rightly refused, Weinstein sabotaged the movie by delaying it for almost a year and severely restricting its release. But word of mouth and positive reviews eventually earned it a broader release although nothing like what was originally planned.
The story is taken from a 1982 French graphic novel and as with any good science fiction, the premise is everything. To stonewall the effects of global warming mankind injects the atmosphere with an experimental agent that instead brings on a second ice age. Humanity’s last inhabitants live within the Snowpiercer, an enormous train in constant motion powered by the “eternal engine”. Onboard the train a social order has been created. The affluent upperclass live in the lavish head section while the poor and needy inhabit the tail. Now at first the movie appeared to be a climate change and class warfare lecture, but once we begin to meet the blend of interesting and eccentric characters, we realize there is more under the hood.
After several failed attempts the tail section puts together another revolt against the privileged and the armed soldiers who defend them. Curtis (Chris Evans) is quickly established as the strongest link and the man many look to for leadership. His mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) is grooming him to be the leader once they are able to take over the train. Curtis is a complex character. He often shows heart particularly in his dealings with his fellow tail-sectioners. Evans continues to grow as an actor. He’s mostly been known for playing goofballs or superheroes but I love seeing him open himself up as an actor. He once again flexes his action star muscle, but it’s nice to see him digging deeper into a character and doing it well.
Evans is helped out by an incredible supporting cast. Jamie Bell is good as a character who starts out as a standard sidekick but evolves into something more. Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer plays a mother determined to get her son back after he is taken by the upperclass authority. A Joon-ho favorite Song Kang-ho plays the drug addicted designer of the train’s many doors separating the cars. The fabulously quirky Alison Pill is great as a character simply titled Teacher, and the always exceptional Ed Harris pops up in a significant role. But the true scene stealer has to be Tilda Swinton. She plays Minister Mason, an overseer of sorts who is really a glorified lacky. Swinton has a ball playing such a wacky and neurotic character. Everything from her appearance to her ways of expressing herself works to inject a bit of humor while never derailing the movie’s more prominent tone.
All of these characters work to energize Joon-ho’s engaging story. To be honest it’s hard to deny the absurdity of it all, and a surface reading would make this sound like a pretty standard action romp. But when the story is this well told and it moves at such a fluid and dynamic pace, it’s so easy to get completely caught up in it. I had a blast with its central conceit and the stylized storytelling. The careful mix of action and character development is well done and the setting is superb. It ranges from beautiful and colorful to dark and dirty while always maintaining a sense of claustrophobia. And as with almost every other sci-fi film, we get plenty of commentary here. Joon-ho paints a parallel portrait of the modern societal standard which is sometimes effective and other times ham-fisted. His climate change theme was the most compelling showing an awareness while also showing the dangers of overreacting. His class warfare approach is a little more uneven. But other themes such as drug abuse, political power, and revolutions are laced throughout the story in intriguing ways.
“Snowpiercer” also looks amazing from its wide assortment of environments within the train to its ice-ravaged world outside. The variety of action we get is also a treat. It may be intense close quarters shootouts or hand-to-hand combat in precarious situations. Some of it dances close to the edge of brutality, but so often Joon-ho pulls back his camera just as the violence is happening sparing the audience from the gore while keeping the sheer intensity of the scene. It’s a mark of the creative Korean style and it gives the movie a particular look that I absolutely loved. It’s a visual delight.
Thanks to Weinstein “Snowpiercer” hasn’t gotten the release it deserves but word of mouth is spreading. Let me happily add to its positive press. This is a fantastic science fiction picture that sounds similar to many other films yet feels completely unique and fresh. It’s a film with many strengths and as a lover of good sci-fi, I had an absolute blast with it!