An Instant Sci-Fi Classic
Reflecting the futuristic nihilism of such genre stalwarts as Blade Runner and Mad Max, the awkwardly titled Snowpiercer is a heavily-layered, captivating journey into what we want the dystopian genre to do: entertain while also providing a somewhat convincing prediction of how the human race would respond in the face of cataclysmic destruction. Nailing one of these tasks may not be easy, but director Bong Joon-ho strikes a perfect balance between the two while also providing a jumping off point for discussions about global warming, life and death, and class division.
Born from the pages of the French graphic novel Transperceneige, the South Korean/American co-production takes place in the immediate future where our Earth has suddenly become uninhabitable due to the disastrous result of a global warming cure-all.
Those who’ve survived our planet’s sudden demise are stowed aboard a train -- called Snowpiercer -- that perpetually circles the same track at super-sonic speeds, completing a single revolution each year. Outside the train, sure death awaits in the sub-zero clime. Inside, prospects are not much better for those lowly souls confined to the rear carriages which resemble a slum, filled with the cold and hungry forced to live on black gelatinous protein cakes and their wits alone. The front section houses the chosen few who thrive in the lap of luxury with salons, spas, booze, drugs, and plenty of food. The train is an allegory for the rampant inequalities that plague our current society.
While it all sounds a bit silly -- and frankly -- outright preposterous (especially when trying to describe it), Bong handles everything quite admirably despite overwhelming budget constraints. He even manages to explain away the perplexing question of “why a train?” His film carries a bleak but charming wonder that would likely be absent from a big-budget American production. In other words, he leans on characters, story, and imagination rather than on whiz-bang CGI wizardry. Certainly a refreshing change.
As the film opens, Curtis (Chris Evans) is in the planning stages of launching an insurgency against the train’s upper-class. Joined by cohort Edgar (Jamie Bell), Tanya (Octavia Spencer), and spiritual mentor Gilliam (John Hurt), his plan involves moving forward, car by car, until reaching the engine which houses Wilford (Ed Harris), the mysterious god-like authoritarian ruler who never leaves the front section of the train he designed.
One-half action movie and one-half political parable, Snowpiercer’s narrative themes are unmistakably Orwellian in nature. They evoke a dingy Cold War chill of proletariat vs. bourgeoisie, while the film’s rather simple structure feels very video game-like as our heroes must constantly move forward through different cars, facing different “levels” as they advance to the engine.
Blocking their way however, is sadistic spokesperson Mason (Tilda Swinton), who keeps an oppressive eye on things as a sort of minister of communication for Wilford’s empire. She tells everyone to “know your place” and reminds them that even the lowest have a purpose in their collective goal of survival. Swinton comes across as grotesquely delightful in her villainous role. She floats about draped in animal fur while sporting pop-bottle spectacles and a buck-toothed snarl. In her disappointingly short screen time, the chameleon-like Swinton takes her Mason from spitefully terrifying to sadly sympathetic, while never losing the astoundingly bizarre character we love to watch.
Not to be outdone though is Chris Evans, who sheds his superstar Captain America persona for a cold, calculating and steely character forced to claw for every scrap of survival. Curtis is clearly the story’s protagonist, but Evans never shouts for our attention -- and Bong refrains from hero shot highlights and exaggerated back-lighting. Evans shows off his acting chops in a role that calls for a calculated balance between emotion and action.
Snowpiercer ends up as a film not to be missed, especially by sci-fi aficionados. It is immersive, bold, violent, humorous, and at times outright nightmarish. But despite its rather complex underpinnings and multilayered intelligence, the movie seems surprisingly approachable. Shamefully though, audiences will struggle to find it in theaters because it is working from a limited release and won’t likely reach the multiplexes. Too bad, for rarely do these dystopian epics get enough things right to become instant classics. Snowpiercer does.
(Released by The Weinstein Company and rated “R” for violence, language and drug content.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.