In a frozen dystopian future, a train carries the straggling remainders of humanity.
Bon Joon-ho, 2013
After global warming caused a second ice age, the world is too cold for humans to survive outside. Instead, the entirety of humanity now exists on one train (the titular Snowpiercer). In the tail end of the train, hundreds of people are cramped together, eating protein blocks to survive in the makeshift bunks that they call home. Curtis (Chris Evans) and his friend Edgar (Jamie Bell), under the guidance of their mentor Gilliam (John Hurt), hatch a plot to rise up against the upper class, who live at the front of the train and who use violence and power to keep the tail enders under their control. They decide to go through with their plan after front ender Mason (Tilda Swinton) comes along to brutally remind them of their place. In order for the plan to work, they need to find security expert Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song) and try to get to the very front of the train where the engine is protected by the mysterious Wilford.
Snowpiercer is bananas. It’s a highly stylised world, its reality heightened by the seemingly inescapable close quarters of the train. Bong Joon-ho’s direction is taut and energetic, creating a fast-paced movie that frequently baffles but is also utterly compelling. Chris Evans is a brooding presence in the lead as Curtis, who is committed to the cause in ways you often don’t see in action movies like this. Jamie Bell is funny as his impatient sidekick, and it’s fun to see Octavia Spencer in a role where she gets to kick some butt. Tilda Swinton practically runs away with the film, putting in a hilarious antagonistic performance and getting to say all the film’s best lines in a flawless Northern accent. There are a lot of great actors rounding out the minor roles as well (John Hurt, Alison Pill, Luke Pasqualino, an almost unrecognisable Ewen Bremner), and each character gets their moment, though for some characters (*cough* Octavia *cough*) they could have had more to do. The movie looks great, high-contrast, dark and gritty in the early scenes, getting progressively brighter. It’s shot wonderfully, getting some real kinetic energy in despite the confines of the space. As Curtis goes further down the rabbit hole, things become more and more bizarre, and this lends the film a fun unpredictability.
I think ultimately, the movie is let down only by its comic book feel, combined with an awkward ending that stretches already thin credulity to breaking point. There are certain things about the movie that just don’t sit right, leading me to wonder why various events happen within the world of the movie and what the characters’ motivations are for causing them. The characters are often just the wrong side of too extreme, too heightened – I couldn’t remember whether or not this was based on a comic book but I guessed that it was while watching, and later research proved this guess to be correct. Certain scenes feel like they could be pulled out into comic panels in one of those darker indie graphic novels, but then it pulls back from fully embracing that aesthetic, trying to make it real instead. This is clearly the director’s vision, but I have to wonder what the ending was trying to say about the class gap metaphor presented in the rest of the film. The animosity between the director and the Weinstein company is now infamous, with Bong ultimately refusing to change the film and the Weinsteins responding by choking off its release. It’s available on iTunes here in Australia and on limited release in America, so if you get a chance, I suggest you go support it. I can guarantee you won’t see anything else like it in the cinema this year, or possibly for years to come.
Snowpiercer on IMDb