With the earth's temperature rising to uninhabitable degrees, scientists deploy the chemical CW-7 into the atmosphere to cool it, but instead the climate is reversed into an ice age which kills all life - except for those who boarded a train whose creator foresaw the catastrophe, designing a self sustaining environment within. But there is a class structure, and those in the tail section live with little light, questionable food and no freedom, much like Jews being transported to Nazi camps. Inspired by his mentor, Gilliam (John Hurt, "Only Lovers Left Alive"), after 17 years aboard, Curtis (Chris Evans, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier") plans a revolt to force their way up to the engine of "Snowpiercer."
Having found himself enthralled by the French graphic novel 'Transperceneige,' cowriter (with Kelly Masterson, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead")/director Bong Joon-ho ("The Host," "Mother"), in his English language debut, has created a masterpiece of action adventure science fiction fueled by a terrific international cast. The film is clearly a metaphor for today's political climate, where the rich rule by keeping the less fortunate down, a 'self sustaining' economic model. Its visually inventive production design/art direction (Ondrej Nekvasil and Stefan Kovacik) may recall "Brazil," its story - to a point - "Saw II," a haunted house carnage where each train car reveals something worse than the one before, but Joon-ho has more on his mind than startling imagery and violence and his climax is both breathtaking and an emotional gut punch.
The wretched masses in the train's rear are routinely cherry picked for needs up front. When a violinist is wanted, the guards refuse to take a married couple, hustling the man out, rifle butting his wife in the face. Just as they've expressed that to control the engine is to control the world, in strides Mason (Tilda Swinton, "The Grand Budapest Hotel," ), a Yorkshire-accented, WWII era stiff upper lipped, gold toothed functionary spreading the gospel of Wilfred, the 'divine' creator of the 'sacred' engine of their world, where everyone must know their place. She times her speech to how long it will take for Andrew's (Ewen Bremner, "Trainspotting") arm, forcibly extruded outside of the train, to freeze (the aftermath ain't pretty). It's something to think about when we note that Gilliam is missing an arm and a leg (although other explanations are in store).
Later, the extravagantly outfitted (costume design by Catherine George) Claude (Emma Levie) will arrive with a measuring tape, taking away two children including Timmy (Marcanthonee Jon Reis). His distraught mother Tanya (Octavia Spencer, "The Help") is now ready to join Curtis's cause, even if Curtis himself is reluctant to take the leadership mantle from Gilliam. Curtis has been finding capsule notes within various protein slabs and he and Gilliam surmise they have an 'insider' who's informed them of the presence of security expert Minsoo Namgoong (Song Kang-ho, "The Host") being held in the train's prison. A battering ram is formed and they make their way into the morgue-like jail area, freeing Namgoong in hopes of using his knowledge to push further.
A 65 car train was created on a gimbal which moved it realistically for shooting, and as Curtis's group ventures forward, we view such spectacles as a greenhouse car, school room (run by bright-eyed propaganda spouter Alison Pill, HBO's 'The Newsroom'), an aquarium complete with sushi bar, sauna car, old world luxury lounges and a hedonistic disco whose revelers drink and rave on Kronol, a drug formulated from industrial waste which also drives Namgoong and his daughter Yona (Ko Ah-sung, "The Host"). Now we can view frozen exteriors (visual effects by Eric Durst), including the precipitous Yekatrina trestle bridge where passage marks a new year. But just because the tail enders have moved passed night-vision goggled ninjas in the dark doesn't mean more dangers don't lie ahead.
The film is stuffed with such concepts as the last Marlboro Light, one of many items referred to as 'extinctions,' like the bullets Curtis gambles the guards no longer have,' and the 'Revolt of Seven,' a group of former passengers frozen on a hillside used as a cautionary tale for the children as 'the rattling ark' passes by. To say any more would spoil this brilliant film's magic.
Harvey Weinstein received much criticism for wishing to release a cut version of the film in the U.S., and although he relented, he ghettoized it in his Radius label, limiting theatrical release in favor of VOD (by all means, see it on the big screen if you can). Hopefully he'll realize what he's let get away from him and give the film its due in year end award campaigning. Tilda Swinton, above all, gives one of her most inspired performances (the role was originally written for a man) - she's absolutely giddy making. Also outstanding is Song as the more calculating than he appears Namgoong. Vlad Ivanov ("4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days") is a psycho assassin, Jamie Bell ("Nymphomaniac, Vol. II") Curtis's protege, Ed Harris the go-to for God-like figures ("The Truman Show") as the self-possessed Wilfred.
The film had me recalling the late great Klaus Kinski screaming 'I am the only free man on this train!' in "Dr. Zhivago's" Russian Revolution. "Snowpiercer's" frozen world uses history to contemplate a chilling future while still offering a glimpse of hope.
Global warming had finally come to the fore on man’s radar screen and a new substance, called WC7, is found to reduce the earth’s temperature. But, things go drastically wrong, temperatures plummet and a new Ice Age grips the planet. 17 years later, most of the world lies extinct in a frozen wasteland. The only survivors are on a train that runs perpetually on a track that takes a year to traverse the earth. The population on board this special train is divided between the haves and the have-nots and, after many years, the downtrodden masses struggling to survive rise up to take command of “Snowpiercer.”
The post-apocalyptic film has been done many times before – “Soylent Green,” “A Boy and His Dog,” “The Mad Max” trilogy, “Waterworld” are just some. With “Snowpiercer,” though, we get an original spin on what can happen when the world goes to hell.
Nearly two decades after the fall of earth, the train still traverses the ice-covered globe on its annual journey. Snowpiercer, the invention of wealthy industrialist Wilford (Ed Harris) who had the foresight to prepare for the looming catastrophe in 2014. is a perpetual motion machine that never stops. The inhabitants of the train live in two completely different worlds. Those riding in the back end cars live in squalor and are fed a disgusting protein bar for food. Theirs is a crowded world without natural light and they have been held in this state far too long. Those in the front, though, live in the lap of luxury – the aristocrats of this society.
Curtis (Chris Evans) can barely remember the time before they boarded the train but he knows he cannot continue as a slave. He forms the plan, with wise elder Gilliam’s (John Hurt) advice, to break out of their prison and take over the front cars of Snowpiercer. This begins a trek of Homerien proportions as the downtrodden fight for freedom.
South Korean writer-director Joon-ho Bong is best known in the west for his murder mysteries – “Memories of Murder (2003)” and “Mother (2009)” – and, especially his kick-ass monster flick, “The Host (2006).” With “Snowpiercer” he leaps the genre abyss to make a science fiction tale of a dystopian world on the edge of survival. It is the best thing I have seen from this getting-more-and-more prolific filmmaker.
Bong has assembled an all star cast that includes Academy Award winners and nominees: Ed Harris (nom’d four times), John Hurt (two nods), Tilda Swinton (winner), Octavia Spencer (winner). Other talented actors joining the class system mayhem include Jamie Bell, Allison Pill, Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko. All of the characters have real personality and you sympathize with the underdog.
The story, by Bong and Kelly Masterson (from the French graphic novel Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette), is exciting from start to finish with an oddly hopeful conclusion. The story is matched by the outstanding production that went to the expense and trouble to create 35 individual train cars, each with its own unique function and use. As the rebels fight their way forward, they are strangers in a strange land that is beautifully realized by the production team.
The Weinstein Company’s Harvey had a conflict with Bong over the film’s length – apparently, he did not think that American audiences would “get” it – and the director won the battle. But, he lost the war. The film is getting a very limited release and you may have to really look to find it at a theater near you. It is coming out on VOD but this is the kind of taut action sci-fi thriller that it really needs to be seen on a big screen to get the full experience. I give it an A-.
The Blu-ray/DVD release:
The Blu-ray release of “Snowpiercer” is chock-a-block full of extras, beginning with film critic Scott Weinberg providing voice over commentary of the film. This is a departure from what we normally expect on a commentary track – the filmmakers talking about their movie as it plays out. Weinberg is joined, at varying points during the film, by phone, by five of his film critic colleagues – James Rocchi, Will Goss, Drew McQuarrie, Jennifer Yamamoto and Peter S. Hall. This makes the commentary more like a phone-in radio talk show as only Weinberg is actually watching the film as they talk. It is a different approach but one that has mixed effect.
The other extras are a wealth of information on the source material, the making of the film and more. “Transperceniege: From the Blank Page to the Black Screen” is an in-depth look at the creation of the graphic novels that spawned Bong Joon-ho to adapt it to the screen in 2013 with “Snowpiercer.” The creators of the novel, Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, provide anecdotal stories about their success – due to the novels being pirated in South Korea that gained new, greater fame for their work. “Transperceniege” flows nicely and with many amusing moments, as when the authors are given bit parts in Bong’s film. They are like kids in a candy shop.
“The Birth of Snowpiercer” is an extended look at the making of the film with interviews with director Bong and the cast and crew. This extra is divided into segments – “Tail Section,” “Prison Section” and “Front Section.” These provide character analysis of all the principal players – Chris Evans, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton (who gives an amazing performance), Kang-ho Song, Ah-sung Ko and Ed Harris – and their places in the microcosmic world society on the titular train.
There is an extended animation clip that acts as a prelude to the film, recycled sound bites and coverage of an outdoor showing of “Snowpiercer” with director Bong quite happily in attendance. This includes an interview Bong as he talks about his film. The collection rounds out with the concept art by Jean-Marc Rochette. I give the Blu-ray release an A-.
Home | Reviews and Ratings Archive | Top 10 | Video | Crew | Article | Links
Reeling has been chosen as a Movie Review Query Engine Top Critic.