2014, R, 126 mins.
2014, R, 126 mins.
Chris Evans as Curtis / Jamie Bell as Edgar / John Hurt as Gilliam / Tilda Swinton as Mason / Alison Pill as schoolteacher / Octavia Spencer as Tanya / Ewen Bremner as Andrew
Directed by Bong Joon-ho / Written by Bong and Kelly Masterson
To use the phrase “unlike anything I’ve seen before” in just about any film review feels like an overused cliché (and I’m certainly guilty of exploiting it from time to time).
Alas, trust me
when I say that you will most likely not see another post-apocalyptic
sci-fi thriller quite like South Korean filmmaker Boon Joon-Ho’s
SNOWPIERCER, which hurtles itself at viewers with a reckless abandon, a
daring originality, and, quite frankly, an endlessly provocative lunacy
and strangeness that stays with viewers after seeing it.
SNOWPIERCER reminded me of the sensation of watching THE MATRIX for
the first time; although the two films could not be any different, both
explore an overdone genre premise and infuse a breathless sense of odd and
ethereal novelty into them. Considering
the many tired and conventional summer films that I’ve seen thus far,
SNOWPIERCER emerges as a proverbial diamond in the rough.
The film - based
on the French graphic novel LE TRANSPERCENEIGE by Jacque Lob, Benjamin
Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette – marks Bong’s English language debut,
but it nonetheless typifies the bizarrely idiosyncratic nature of his past
films like THE HOST, which took stale genre stapes and twisted and turned
them is refreshingly bizarre and novel ways.
Like most post-apocalyptic films, SNOWPIERCER does explain the
origins and nature of the global catastrophe that caused the world to turn
upside down, but it does so expeditiously and doesn’t dwell or waste
time on exposition. All you
need to know is this: In 2014 a scientific experiment to counter the effects
of global warming goes horribly afoul, leaving the planet exposed to a new
ice age that has blanketed the world in snow and inhospitable arctic
conditions. Nearly all known
life of Earth went extinct as a direct result.
Some of humanity
did survive, largely thanks to a super wealthy and super enigmatic
industrialist named Wilford (Ed Harris), who built an incomparably long
high speed train dubbed "The Snowpiercer,” which traverses a track that spans the world and is propelled by a
self-sustaining, perpetual motion engine (so, in short, it never stops and
never runs out of gas). Like
many other dystopian views of the future, the Snowpiercer is segregated
based on class lines: The wealthy 99 per cent live in luxury in the head
cars, whereas the poor one per cent live in dirty, disease-riddled
discomfort and poverty in hind cars.
Needless to say, this causes great friction between both parties.
After nearly 20
years of life on the never-ending train, the people of the tail end of the
social hemisphere have had just about all that they can take.
Unfortunately, Wilford’s armed patrols make it next-to-impossible
for even a well-planned rebellion to be successful.
Curtis (a never been better or more headstrong Chris Evans)
decides to lead the charge of a new rebellion based on a plan by one of
the train’s oldest inhabitants, Gilliam (John Hurt).
They will make it to the cryogenic sleep chamber of Namgoong
(Kang-ho Song), who just happens to be one of the train’s earliest engineers and knows the ins and outs of trying to make forward progress
through to the front end of it. When Curtis makes the discovery that Wilford’s right hand
woman Mason (played in a crazy-eyed performance by Tilda Swinton) and her
guards are not armed, per se, he decides to spring into action with his
allies and fight their way to Wilford himself, who lives a life of Howard
Hughes-like solitude at the very front of the train.
SNOWPIERCER is masterful, and its steampunk infused aesthetic and
craftsmanship echoes films like Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL.
Boon understands the inherent limitations of filming action on the
cramped and confined spaces of a train and makes it look as arresting as
possible. The Snowpiercer
becomes an oppressive character in its own right, and Boon uses a stark
monochromatic palette and great shadow play to evoke a dreadful sense of claustrophobia
that exists for its downtrodden denizens.
Even as Curtis and his companions methodically make their way
through to the upper class quarters of the train – especially during one
ingeniously staged sequence featuring Alison Pill as a grade school
teacher whose outward congeniality masks inner homicidal tendencies –
you witness Boon pulling the carpet out from under us. Just when you think
SNOWPIERCER is going to be one kind of stylistic endeavor, it dares to
make stark 180-degree turns to subvert our expectations.
Boon is also
remarkably astute and precise on the action front. The $40 million
budgeted SNOWPIERCER contains numerable scenes of axe swinging, bone
crunching and artery spewing mayhem…all done thanklessly within
remarkably closed quarters (people that are even remotely squeamish need
not apply…trust me). Yet,
for as wholeheartedly gruesome as many of the film’s most ugly and violent
skirmishes are, Boon finds remarkable invention for staging and
gives them an almost grotesque beauty.
One sequence – a showstopper – involves a bravura and
sadistically savage donnybrook between Curtis and his men and Wilford’s
goons…all done in the dark, shot via a first person perspective through night
vision goggles. We have all
seen so many countless action scenes in films like this before, which
makes what Boon achieves here all the more refreshing.
I love it when filmmakers revel in showcasing old set pieces in new
ways unseen before.
It would be easy
to write off SNOWPIERCER as a work of startling art direction and
impeccable craft without much care in the world as to the subtle nuances of
character and story, but Boon and co-writer Kelly Masterston realize that great
sci-fi works when the actors are invested in the material.
Chris Evans has emerged as an actor with a solid understated
charisma and charm (see the CAPTAIN AMERICA films), but here he brings a
whole other level of dark psyche to his character of Curtis, a haunted and
ferociously driven man willing to do just about anything to secure the
freedom of his people. The
film also is bolstered by resoundingly solid supporting performances by
John Hurt and Tilda Swinton, the latter who’s almost unrecognizable as
Wilford’s chief enforcer; she brings a darkly comic and unpredictable
edge to her character that gives the film a sense of impending unease
throughout. Kang-ho Song adds
a whole other emotionally grounded layer to an already “out-there”
film. Despite all of
SNOWPIERCER’s dazzling artistry and pulse pounding action, it’s nice
to see Boon pull back and let the interplay of the actors help sell the
reality of his world.
SNOWPIERCER is not completely air tight, as it did leave me asking a few questions about its own logic (like, for instance, how has this non-stop strain never been derailed in nearly two decades by a random avalanche?). Still, those are minor gripes, because Boon evolves with such an assured and confident vision and handling of the inherent high concept material that you’re willing to forgive its foibles. It’s one of those rare effects and action driven sci-fi thrillers with a provocative socio-political underbelly and strong performances to help keep everything on track, and those are not a dime-a-dozen these days. SNOWPIERCER, in its current form, almost didn’t happen, which would have been disgraceful. The Weinstein Company disliked the 126-minute cut of the film and threatened to edit it down by 20 minutes. Under pressure, the studio relented to Boon’s cut, but in the process – and perhaps as a result – drastically limited its North American release to a pitiful number of screens.
That’s a shame. SNOWPIERCER, wherever and however you see it, deserves to be looked at.