Snowpiercer imagines a future where an attempt to fix global warming backfires, plunging earth into another ice age. The only survivors of the calamity are the passengers aboard “The Snowpiercer,” a massive train powered by a perpetual engine, which makes one lap around the globe on a yearly cycle. Within the microcosm world of the Snowpiercer, a social hierarchy is quickly established: the poor, weak, and destitute are confined to the tail, while the wealthy, powerful and affluent members of society live towards the front of the train, where their leader/god – the industrialist Mr. Wilford – dutifully maintains the engine.
The twist comes when a young tough from tail section named Curtis (Chris Evans) decides to lead his people in revolt. After quickly seizing control of a few cars, Curtis and company free prisoner Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song), the security officer who built the doors to each section of the train, as well as his eccentric daughter, Yona (Ah-sung Ko). Namgoong agrees to aid the revolution for a price: Curtis must supply him with a piece of “Kronol” (an addictive drug made out of toxic waste) for every door hacked into. With a plan to guide them, Curtis and his rebels begin to claim car after car in the name of socioeconomic justice; however, Snowpiercer’s bureaucratic overlord, Mason (Tilda Swinton), won’t let Curtis succeed without a fight. As blood begins to flow, the Curtis revolution not only upsets the social order – it could literally derail The Snowpiercer and bring and end to humanity’s time.
The newest work of Korean filmmaker Joon-ho Bong (The Host (cult-classic 2006 monster movie, not the Stephenie Meyer tween drama)), Snowpiercer is a piece B-movie science fiction brought to life in highly impressive fashion and distinguished by the uniqueness of its world, the compellingly oddball characters that populate it, and a signature filmmaking style that has earned Joon-ho Bong a cult following. And it’s a following that is sure to grow exponentially, if he keeps making movies like this one.
On a directorial level, Joon-ho makes the most out of a modest budget (estimated at $39.6 million) to create the world of the Snowpiercer train society. Maybe the sole flaw in the movie is that, at times, its visual effects show their budgetary limitations (see: exterior shots of the frozen world or moving train); but for the most part, the sets (and characters) are gritty and dark and convincingly real in their near-future designs and tech. Each “car” of the train reveals a set piece distinctly different than the one before, yet consistent within the context and aesthetic of the film. Each step of the journey is made to be worthwhile and interesting – often chilling, like something out of an Orwellian nightmare – and sci-fi fans will get a kick out of this particular version of the post-apocalyptic (dis)order.
That’s not to say that Joon-ho’s achievement can only be measured in aesthetic; there is some great direction at work in the film – from the shot choices and imagery, to the brutal action sequences that come in unrelenting and violent waves. Snowpiercer mixes eastern and western cinematic signatures into a refreshingly unique brew that only further helps distinguish this oddly wonderful world.
Joon-ho also composes the tone of his film into flawless movements between stark and serious social commentary, over-the-top action and almost cartoonish brutality, and plays those alterations in perfect harmony. Cinephiles will also notice homages to some directorial greats, such as Kubrickian and Hitchcockian technique for creating intense and effective moments of horror and suspense, respectively. Joon-ho proves to be both a well-studied and yet uniquely avant-garde composer of his film world.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead screenwriter Kelly Masterson helps Joon-ho adapt the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige (by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette) into a smart (and often darkly witty) sci-fi parable / social allegory. There are great (often hip) exchanges of banter (sometimes in different languages) – yet also odd-yet-effective pauses for Shakespearean monologues that marry east/west philosophical quandary with topics like murder and cannibalism. There are speeches and lines in Snowpiercer that will likely be burned into your brain alongside the imagery; that alone is a testament to the potency of what Bong and Masterson have created on the page.
The metaphorical parallels to contemporary society are very on-the-nose, but they are also thankfully stripped of political leanings in order to focus on larger philosophical questions of how society is structured and how it functions. The movie is not afraid to take those questions on directly, and handles them with enough complexity to make the build up exciting, and the ultimate payoff as thought-provoking and satisfying (intellectually) as it is entertaining.
A great cast absolutely makes this film better than it could’ve otherwise been, and every player earns his/her spot. Chris Evans is pretty much a revelation as a leading man; the difference between Evans in a complex and layered role like this, and now-obvious hollow persona he dons to play Marvel’s Captain America is stunning. Curtis is a character who grows deeper and more compelling as the film goes on, and Evans delivers each level of performance perfectly. After a few Marvel films, his skills on the action front are just as accomplished; Curtis is as formidable and badass as he is deep. A great character, and great role to show what Chris Evans could be as a free agent.
The Host stars Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko re-team with Joon-ho to play a pair of great foils for Curtis. Song is all old-school Hollywood cool as Namgoong, while Ko is all plucky and cute as Yona, often creating a humorous juxtaposition to the many horrific circumstances our heroes face along the way. Iconic actor John Hurt brings the necessary gravitas as Curtis’ righteous mentor, Gilliam; Jamie Bell (Turn), Ewen Bremner (AVP) and Octavia Spencer (The Help) have the skill to quickly and deftly create secondary rebel characters we like and care about; while Luke Pasqualino (The Borgias) shines in some well-choreographed action sequences as Gilliam’s bodyguard, Grey.
On the villain side, Tilda Swinton steals (and chews) many a scene as a ridiculous bureaucrat caricature who is almost hilariously sociopathic in her stern speeches about the natural hierarchy of society. Eastern European actors Adnan Haskovic and Vlad Ivanov are frighteningly good as Franco the Elder and Franco the Younger, Mason’s henchman; Haskovic steals his part of the show, playing Elder as a ruthless and shockingly brutal stone-faced maniac. Other famous faces pop up for cameo roles along the way through the train – most of them are best enjoyed in surprise (don’t watch too many trailers).
All in all, Snowpiercer is definitive proof that there is a growing market for moderately-budgeted blockbuster film – that is, if you approach things from a global market perspective. It’s blend of unique vision, strong execution (in action, wit, and humor) and compelling characters (brought to life by a skilled ensemble) culminate in one of the year’s best bets for a dark horse hit. If Transformers 4 is everything that makes you sick about modern sci-fi, this movie is your medicine. See it. ‘One of the best of the year,’ indeed.