Snowpiercer (2013)

This multinational (but Korean-led) science fiction film has been floating around in the peripheries of my cinematic consciousness for a while. I liked director Joon-Ho Bong’s previous ‘creature feature’ effort ‘The Host’ (2006); a cool lil flick with some surprising humor and sweet visuals that I easily recommend, so his production style, coupled with this premise, intrigued me.
‘Snowpiercer’ takes place on ‘Earth of The Near Future’; a near future in which humanity, in a desperate effort to halt global warming via scientific means, doomed our world to an icy grave. The Earth is caught in the grip of a man-made Ice Age that has killed off more than 99% of our population. The last vestige of humanity is confined to a miles-long, futuristic train that runs on a track spanning the globe. This train never stops, completing a full run of the circumference of our planet once a year. The population of this rolling ‘world’ is strictly divided into a cruel class system.
We are thrust into this universe through an introduction to ‘Curtis’ (Chris Evans) and ‘Edgar’ (Jamie Bell), two members of what is essentially ‘steerage’ class; confined to the tail-end of the train. As we get to know these two, we’re introduced to other interesting characters who try to forge a life among the metallic filth that surrounds them. Seems there’s a plot to storm The Sacred Engine, ie push forward up through the cars leading to the mysterious Locomotive and the inventor / owner / dictator of the train, ‘Wilford’ (Ed Harris). Using ‘Wilford’s nasty bitch of an assistant, ‘Mason’ (Tilda Swinton), as a guide/hostage, ‘Curtis’ and his dirty, suffering cohorts fight and navigate through the variously-themed cars (Aquarium Car, Night Club Car, Sushi Bar Car etc) on their way to what they think is freedom.
‘Snowpiercer’ is very good. It’s not as terrific as I hoped, but it has a lot of ‘impressive’ to offer. First off, the cast is awesome. As usual, Chris Evans (‘Push’) is solid, bringing a sense of tragic, desperate determination to the role of ‘Curtis’, with one mid-movie monologue about forced cannibalism carrying enough gravity to give goosebumps. Jamie Bell essentially reprises his role of ‘Jimmy’, from ‘King Kong’ (2005), only with more confidence and bravado…and did it well. The real treat here was Tilda Swinton (‘Constantine’) as ‘Mason’. ‘Mason’ is Pure Bitch, through and through. Swinton threw herself into this character and simply owned it. She fully engaged with the physical transformation into ‘Mason’, with the ugly dental prosthetic over-bite standing out as a defining feature that only heightened the black soul of this individual. The character was SO deliciously hateful that every time she was injured or imperiled…I caught myself grinning. No bullshit. EVERY time. SO…hat’s off to you, Tilda Swinton! You perfected a character that I wanted to kill with my bare hands! ‘Heavy hitter’ actors John Hurt (‘Alien’) as ‘Gilliam’ and Ed Harris ‘(‘The Abyss’) as ‘Wilford’ bring interesting flavor to the two yin-yang ‘leaders’ of the opposing forces, with Harris emerging as the slightly more memorable of the two for the small personality ‘twitches’ that he gave ‘Wilford’. There’s also one of director Bong’s go-to actors Kang-Ho Sung (‘The Host’) as an eccentric systems engineer-turned-drug addict named ‘Nam’ who, along with his possibly telepathic (and definite addict) daughter ‘Yona’ (Ah-sung Ko), is key to the rebel’s passage through the train. These two characters had a cool chemistry as Father/Daughter, and helped fill out the Korean quota for this joint South Korean/Czech/French/US production. Other familiar faces emerge from the crowd and make it work too (Ewen Bremner, Octavia Spencer etc).
Around the mid-way point, my girlfriend off-handedly remarked that it seemed like a video-game premise, and she was absolutely correct. The literally linear narrative of capturing the train, one car at a time, could easily be the backbone of a game…and some people MAY see that level of simplicity as a detriment. But I don’t. Given some the more complex ideas that bubble out of the story (class system politics, human rights, destiny etc), a simpler narrative, in my opinion, is a good platform for presenting these topics, while also staying simple enough to follow effortlessly.
The effects are pretty good too. There are some REALLY nice visuals depicting the frozen Earth the train thunders through, but many times there was a ‘too clean’ veneer to the CG. It didn’t look bad, but it didn’t necessarily play as ‘photo-realistic’. Still, to the average movie-goer, it probably won’t distract from the main story.
One thing I found cool was, going back to the ‘video-game’ perspective, the differing aesthetic given to each location and set-piece. Many scenes followed a simple ‘break into next train car’, encounter some new ‘bad guys’, fight bad guys, push on’ concept, but each one was given it’s own ‘slant’. Every room and situation had it’s own unique visual flourish. I especially liked one involving darkness, unfair use of night-vision and quick strobes of light. There’s also a really sweet ‘long one-take’ following a bloodied Chris Evans through a slow-motion, ‘side-scroller’ fight.
All in all, I’m glad I finally got around to seeing this flick.’Snowpiercer’ is a well-pondered and effective science fiction film with some interesting commentary on ‘Human Nature vs Human Rights’ and ‘The Cost of Survival’. The cast is solid (Tilda Swinton!!), and bring a nicely paced mixture of ‘gravity’ and excitement; off-set by moments of welcome levity. The visual effects work, but could’ve used one more ‘run through’ prior to release, in my humble opinion. There are a couple of scenes that threaten to drag the pace down (in the 2nd Act), but luckily they don’t outstay their welcome. I can certainly recommend this film to science fiction / action buffs, but also to those who appreciate an iota of deeper thought hiding in the subtext of escapist entertainment.

“Bullets are extinct.”
– ‘Gilliam’


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