Directed by: Joon-ho Bong.
Written by: Joon-ho Bong and Kelly Masterson based on Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob & Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette.
Starring: Chris Evans (Curtis), Kang-ho Song (Namgoong Minsoo), Ed Harris (Wilford), John Hurt (Gilliam), Tilda Swinton (Mason), Jamie Bell (Edgar), Octavia Spencer (Tanya), Ewen Bremner (Andrew), Ah-sung Ko (Yona), Alison Pill (Teacher), Luke Pasqualino (Grey), Vlad Ivanov (Franco the Elder), Adnan Haskovic (Franco the Younger), Emma Levie (Claude), Stephen Park (Fuyu), Clark Middleton (Painter), Marcanthonee Reis (Tim), Paul Lazar (Paul), Tómas Lemarquis (Egg-Head).
Bong Joon-ho has made his career taking what looks like a typical genre film and twisting it in subtle, refreshing and daring ways. His best – and perhaps least known (at least in North America) – Memories of Murder (2003) – was a Korean Zodiac, before Fincher made Zodiac. The Host (2006) was a brilliant giant monster movie that added layers of dark comedy, environmental messaging and family drama. Mother (2009) – was a brilliant thriller about a mother who will do anything to protect her son – until the shocking final revelation turned everything on its head. His latest film, Snowpiercer, is an allegory disguised as a blockbuster, dystopian sci-fi, action epic. If there is one thing wrong with Snowpiercer – and that’s a big if since the movie is for the most part great – it’s that I don’t think Bong really does much twisting this time around. You know what the movie is from the beginning, and it pretty much stays on that track from beginning to end – even the “twist” at the end is something that cannot be seen as too shocking, can it?
The film takes places 17 years after humanity, in an attempt to save the planet from global warming ends up freezing the entire planet by accident (thanks Al Gore!). Everyone on earth is dead, except for the few lucky survivors aboard a giant plane – the Snowpiercer – created by a mystery man who spends his time at the front of the train, and no one ever sees him. The train will never stop – apparently – but does have a brutal class structure – with desperate, poor, dirty people crammed in the back on the train, doing what they’re told, and eating on gelatinous “protein bars” (you don’t want to know what they’re made of). At the front of the train are the wealthy – who eat real food, have access to schools, to alcohol, to nightclubs, etc. The poor have revolted before, and failed, but they want to try it again. This time, they’re led by Curtis (Chris Evans) – whose backstory is shrouded with mystery. As he and he group move ahead, they learn more about the train, its history, and also about Curtis’ troubled history itself.
Structurally, the film is remarkable simple –the entire thing takes place on the one train, which advances, as mentioned, on car at a time. In each new car they enter they either learn something from the people in it, or have to fight their way through the people in it. Their first stop is to get “security expert” Namgoong Minsoo (Bong favorite Kang-ho Song) – who helped designed the train, and can get each new gate open. From their they find out how their food gets processed, how their water gets processed, have a few brilliantly staged fight sequences with the train’s armed guards (including a stunning one that includes a section in the dark), take Mason (a wonderfully weird Tilda Swinton) hostage to try and get what they want. Some of the stops are violent, some disturbing, some beautiful, some surreal. And one – where they discover an elementary school class, taught by a deranged teacher (Allison Pill – brilliant in her one scene) – all of them at once.
The entire movie is mainly one brilliant set piece after another. Bong is a brilliant director of action, suspense, who is also capable of getting great performances out of his cast – Evans has never been better, Swinton delivers at least her third great performance this year (after Grand Budapest Hotel and Only Lovers Left Alive), Pill continues to make the case that she deserves bigger roles and everyone else is just as good. The film shares some DNA with films like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (which following the very different film, The Double, a few weeks ago is the second time I’ve evoked that film in a month – and just wait for my review of Gilliam’s latest, The Zero Theorem – coming soon) in terms of some of its visuals, and its outlook at the future.
For the most part, I loved every minute of Snowpiercer. Just a week after the great Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, we got another, large-scale, great dystopian sci-fi movie – (because it’s a foreign film people who claim to hate all blockbusters can love it too). My only real problem with the movie is that given what Bong has done in the past, I kept expecting him to do something wholly different at some point in Snowpiercer – some twist (not necessarily a narrative one) – and take Snowpiercer in a daring new direction, and he never really does. He stages the final few scenes for shock value, but there is nothing all that surprising. That, along with the fact that his dialogue is at times a little too on the nose – are the only two real problems I have with what is otherwise a thrilling movie. I know it’s available to everyone on demand right now – but the visuals of this film demand to be seen on a big screen if possible. It may not be Bong’s best film – but it’s still a wonderful film.