Writers: Joon-ho Bong, Kelly Masterson
Director: Joon-ho Bong
Starring: Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Kang-ho Song, Tilda Swinton
Release Date: June 27 (select theaters)
Distributor: Radius/The Weinstein Company (USA)
I’ve always been of the opinion that “original concepts” are overrated, especially in Hollywood. Every great movie ever was based on a book—or at least pieces of stories that came before it. If you take some basic science fiction tropes and make a better movie than anybody else, how is it somehow inferior to something that’s never been done? I would much rather watch a familiar masterpiece than a revolutionary load of tripe.
Thus with Bong Joon-ho’s SNOWPIERCER, a tale of post-apocalyptic class warfare aboard a massive train, which is not only based on a graphic novel (LA TRANSPERCENEIGE) but also draws from a number of classic science fiction stories. The dystopian confinement scenario has been done many times (THE MATRIX, BRAZIL, DARK CITY, even shows like EVANGELION and ATTACK ON TITAN), and the notion of a futuristic caste system can be traced through Sci-Fi from BATTLE ROYALE to PLANET OF THE APES all the way back to Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS.
But I’ll be damned if SNOWPIERCER isn’t the most impressive and startling conglomeration of cinematic brilliance I’ve witnessed onscreen since I sat rapt and terrified by the Pang brothers’ original production of THE EYE in 2003. It’s the kind of movie you come out of thinking “There is no better way I could have spent those two hours.” It’s extreme and revelatory and strange and worthy of every bit of praise I have in my vocabulary.
Those familiar with Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s work know him as the man behind THE HOST, a 2006 monster movie that was neither particularly original nor perfectly executed but managed to do enough things right to refine and reinvigorate the monster genre. The opening twenty minutes alone were worth the price of admission. SNOWPIERCER marks Bong’s first English language film, and it is a beast of a debut.
The format of the film takes that of a journey: each section of the train is its own mini-movie, from the serene aquarium to the drug-addled club cars. Our protagonists, led by Curtis (Chris Evans) and Edgar (Jamie Bell), begin as freeloaders at the tail end of this endlessly looping hunk of metal that houses the last vestiges of humanity. They survive on doled-out gelatin bars and sleep in crowded barracks, dreaming of eating steak in first class. A revolution is inevitable, but as the rear passengers overcome their superiors and fight their way forward, the stakes get more serious and realities of their situation slowly come to light.
SNOWPIERCER is full of surreal imagery and shocking moments (this coming from one who claims to be patently un-shockable). The climactic action sequence takes place in a sauna. Dirty and bloodied revolutionaries sit awkwardly at a swank sushi bar. There are notes sent in capsules, hidden inside eggs and protein blocks made of crushed insect parts. There is axe-laden violence, surreal smiles under bloody hoods. The deft wielding of weapons is not glorified, but filmed with a lens of regret and realism that gives a sharp contrast to the bright colors that riddle the front of the train. There is even a completely ridiculous musical number with young children praising the train’s engineer, Wilford, and a refrain that warns against going outside lest you “freeze and die!” As an audience member, you look upon this absurdity with the same disbelief as Curtis, who has only ever known dirt and pain and has trouble believing that these dreamlike environments even exist.
The performances in this movie are flat-out fantastic. All you have to do is look at the diverse cast list to figure out why. Tilda Swinton is absolutely hilarious in a bizarre role of political power. Bong Joon-ho brings his two stars of THE HOST, Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko, as a father-daughter drug addict team-up that is sympathetic and ridiculous at the same time. Octavia Spencer is nothing less than magnificent as a mother on the hunt for her stolen child, and John Hurt evokes quiet emotion as Curtis’s crippled advisor. This movie will also place you squarely in the Chris-Evans-is-awesome camp, in case you weren’t there before. If incredible isn’t the word for his performance, then believably intense will have to do, given his character has to convincingly talk a five year old down from his escape perch and speak frankly about cannibalism in the space of the same two hours.
Perhaps the metaphor is hammered down a bit too deftly, especially close to the end, when the secrets of the train are revealed in a series of crazy twists. But after all the violence and shocks and downright ballsy storytelling, SNOWPIERCER has earned the right to settle proudly into its symbolism. And that it does, with the kind of aplomb usually reserved for “Oscar-worthy” snoozefests.
Ultimately, it might be a film too weird and multicultural to be a mainstream hit (the sparse Korean subtitles alone would be enough to throw some people off), but I hope I’m wrong about that. It is an absolute must-see for Sci-Fi fans—or anyone willing to take a chance on film unafraid to juxtapose bone-crunching tragedy with bizarre humor. What SNOWPIERCER lacks in a niche audience it makes up for in mastery. I can’t wait to buy the hell out of the DVD. 10/10