Chris Evans leads a resistance of oppressed passengers aboard the last moving train on a frozen Earth in Snowpiercer. Is the sci-fi film a masterpiece or a disappointment? 411's Jeffrey Harris checks in with his full review!
Directed By: Bong Joon-ho Written By: Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson; Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette Runtime: 126 minutes MPAA Rating: Rated R
Curtis Everett - Chris Evans Namgoong Minsoo - Song Kang-ho Edgar - Jamie Bell Gilliam - John Hurt Yona - Go Ah-Sung Mason - Tilda Swinton Tanya - Octavia Spencer Andrew - Ewen Bremner Franco the Elder - Vlad Ivanov Franco the Younger - Adnan Haskovic Painter - Clark Middleton Fuyu - Steve Park Egg-head - Tomas Lemarquis Wilford - Ed Harris
The apocalypse is here. The world has been frozen over in a perpetual ice age due to human meddling with the atmosphere to prevent global warming. All that remains of humanity are the denizens of the Snowpiercer, a train powered by a perpetual-motion engine on a track that spans across the entire globe. Times are bleak. Any type of long-term exposure outside the train means certain death. The passengers of the back car of the train are forced to live in squalor, while the first-class passengers live in luxury. Curtis Everett (Evans), who has lived on the Snowpiercer for 17 years, is orchestrating a rebellion for the back car passengers to run through the gauntlet of guards and malevolent overseers in the other compartments and take over the train.
Everett operates under the tutelage of his mentor Gilliam (Hurt), who lost his limbs in the back carís darkest days. The back car denizens have been receiving secret messages from a mysterious ally somewhere closer to the front. When the time is right, Everett and his young sidekick Edgar (Bell) hope to overtake the guards in an effort to wrest control of the Snowpiercer from the trainís mysterious creator and tyrant Wilford. Everett catches on to the fact that the guards no longer have working bullets. The resistance members strike and take control of the detention car, freeing Minsoo (Kang-ho). Minsoo designed all the security systems in the train and has the knowledge to hack open all the doors. He agrees to help the resistance in exchange for Kronol cubes, a highly addictive drug made from the trainís industrial waste, for him and his daughter Yona (Ah-Sung). The burden of leadership now falls on Everett to get to the front of the train, using any means necessary. However, the Snowpiercerís secrets are far darker and more sinister than anyone could imagine.
Snowpiercer marks the English-language debut of South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, who previously had some crossover success in the west with his 2006 film The Host. In terms of visuals, Joon-ho has an incredibly keen eye. Snowpiercer has an incredibly distinct, unique, appealing visual style. The way Joon-ho has constructed basically an entire world aboard the train is a visual delight. Each train section has its own purpose; conditions change and become more elaborate as Everett and his companions make their way toward the front engine car. One car is a walkthrough aquarium. Another car is the trainís school for children. One even holds a nightclub rave for careless young people getting high and dancing the night away without a care in the world.
Watching Snowpiercer was a lot like playing a video game, and that is not meant to be an insult. The visual aesthetic and premise is evocative of a game such as Metro: Last Light (which was based on a sci-fi book series) since each car is like a different stage or level. The bleak premise and conditions also remind me of Metro: Last Light to some degree. Perhaps because in Metro, the remnants of humanity have taken refuge in underground train stations due to nuclear war. Here, it is just one single train. Also reminiscent of Metro is how in the face of extinction, humans have both the enduring ability to survive and also the ability to become cruel and terrible. Joon-ho does a great job of creating a setting that is so bleak that it is borderline nihilistic, but there is still that silver lining of hope.
In terms of plot, the premise is unfortunately quite flimsy. One expository sequence basically explains that the Snowpiercer was built in anticipation of the attempts at counteracting global warming, ending in failure. Therefore, a track that runs across the entire world was built. Residents of the train know that a yearís duration has passed when the train crosses over the same bridge structure about the same time every year. The plot nearly collapses under its own weight at times; and as great of a visual eye that Joon-ho has, he sacrifices plot for the sake of cool visuals and some gory violence. Without giving anything away, the third act has a plot twist that has become borderline cliché in terms of sci-fi tropes and narrative storytelling. It is a disappointing, unoriginal twist that the movie basically telegraphs, and you can see it coming a mile away. Now, I will give the plot credit for the revelation of the ingredients in the protein bars that the back car passengers have as their only food source. Letís just say they are a good source of protein (and no, the protein bars are not made of people).
It is through the acting performances that Snowpiercer truly shines. The film is filled with an eclectic, international cast, led by Evans as the reluctant, emotionally damaged Everett. Tilda Swinton as Mason steals just about every scene she is in as the eccentric overseer of the back car passengers. Swinton looks almost unrecognizable in costume, and Mason appears to be some sort of archetype of a bygone era. She is British, but she has the attitude of a Fascist stooge. Some of the movieís strongest moments and dialogue exchanges occur when she is forced into becoming Everettís hostage and reluctant guide through the train. Strong veterans such as Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, and Jamie Bell make up the rest of the cast. Wilford also has a colorful cast of minions who say very little but are quite colorful and distinct in their own right. The filmís dialogue flows very well. The way that Everett and other characters get around the language barrier by speaking to Minsoo is very clever.
There has also been a great deal of controversy over which version of the film would be released domestically after it was acquired by The Weinstein Company. I can say the version i saw was Joon-ho's director's cut. I can see why an executive would want to trim the film, but this version is likely the most effective version I can imagine. This is a sci-fi film worth checking out if you have the chance.
The 411: I would not call Snowpiercer a modern sci-fi classic, but it does well with what it has. Director Bong Joon-ho has created an impressive, unique visual world. He directs bleak, depressing conditions with incredible technique. The plot suffers from some rather flawed and predictable conventions. The film does feature strong performances from the leads, especially Evans and Swinton. The best opportunities to see this film will likely be on Netflix, Redbox, iTunes, or on home video. With that in mind, the film is definitely worth a look.