"Snowpiercer" is a Korean movie filled with an international cast of actors from Britain, America, and South Korea. It is directed by Bong Joon-ho - best known for the giant monster movie, "The Host"** - in what is essentially his English-language debut. 90% of this movie is in English, and stars English-speaking actors such as Chris Evans, John Hurt, and Jamie Bell. Joining the cast is South Korean actors Song Kang-ho and Go-An Sung, for that native touch. "Snowpiercer" is also the most expensive Korean movie ever made, costing forty million dollars. Thanks to its Anglo cast and general awesomeness, it has finally reached North America with a fairly large release a year after its debut on the Korean peninsula. But thanks to my laziness, I am only getting around to reviewing it now. Apologies.
The aforementioned awful concept is this: the human race's attempts to stop global warming have been a brilliant success. Unfortunately it worked far too well, because rather than suffering Al Gore's nightmares of dying polar bears, the entire world have been frozen, and most likely Al Gore himself is a block of ice. The last bastion of humanity now lives on board a mile-long train which circles the planet every year on an endless track. The seating arrangements have become much more literal, with the first class passengers living in a 1920s wonderland, while the steerage folk suffer in grimy darkness, eating nothing but blocks of ground-up cockaroaches. Tired of the cruel abuse and torture from the 1%, Curtiss Everett (Chris Evans) leads a revolt amongst the oppressed to capture the train, seize the engine, and discover the mysteries of its master, the unseen godlike figure, Wilford.
The premise was enough to make me honestly laugh out loud. If you were to build an ark to sustain humanity through an apocalypse, there are probably fewer means of transportation more impractical than a train. They're tight quarters, you need constant maintenance of the tracks, the engine would run out of fuel, where would you grow your crops? Unsurprisingly this wacky story is based off a French graphic novel, where the concept was taken very seriously. The set design in the movie reflects that, building a separate world for every car, where one could almost believe in the idea of microcosm locomotive. Steerage is dark, gray, and dirty. Then the closer cars are colorful towns full of hilarious propaganda, art deco parties, and giant fishtanks. Creating a universe requires that exact mixture of (if you will please allow me to torture the English language for a second to get my idea across) lived-in-ness along with fantastic imagery, which "Snowpiercer" achieves brilliantly. You will come to believe this trippy train idea soon enough. Of course you will have to accept perpetual motion devises to do so, but there are always sacrifices.
|Chris Evans had to be hardboiled twice in order to fit the right tone for this movie.|
The train, the characters within, even the silly propaganda are all necessary objects for the story. Things here are not nearly as simple as they seem. As the heroes march from one end of the train to the other, it becomes more and more clear that the those living on the wrong side of the tracks in steerage are not the only ones who are enslaved, everybody is. The gears of the engine cannot be the only thing that is perceptual, this entire society needs to last forever. The evolving mystery of just what horrifying the ends Wilford will go to keep his train running is what takes the movie from French pulp to genius.
More importantly though is probably the human element. The acting is suburb all the way down the line. Chris Evans is putting together a career-best performance as the tortured and reluctant leader of the steerage revolution. You got John Hurt as Gilliam, the elderly guide, missing two limbs from a lifetime and resistance and hard sacrifices. Jamie Bell is Curtiss's second-in-command. Octavia Spencer is a furious mom trying to get her son back. Ed Harris plays Wilford in the final reveal. Tilda Swinton, who seems to be trying her best to dominate my future list of Best Movies of 2014***, plays (through a ton of make-up and thick glasses) Mason, a pedantic schoolmistress who tortures the proletariat for sport.
|Little kids learn to love Big Brother Wilford.|
Happily the action scenes in "Snowpiercer" are not only excellent, but clever. Bong Joon-ho is able to stage an entire battle scene with about a hundred participants all with axes in the tight confines of a set maybe fifteen feet wide. "Snowpiercer" makes the most of its premise by incorporating the setting into the combat. Wilford's army's main strategy involves the particulars of train travel, you can only marvel at the brilliance of his gambits. Later there is a sniper duel between Curtiss and Wilford's main heavy, a huge balding middle-aged man who is seemingly impossible to kill, that happens halfway across the mile-long string of cars, as they fire at each other while the train makes a huge left turn. This is not a movie that has a one-track mind about solely violence, but what we have is well-directed and exciting. Deaths have real meaning here, as no character is safe from the stray bullets and knives. The R-rating is definitely earned while blood splashes against car windows.
Juxtapose all that violence with the general humor of the movie. The classroom scene is this over-the-top indoctrination gag, where you get to watch mindless propaganda. You have Tilda Swinton's unrecognizable weasel-like character, and then people dying all over the place. Yona spends most of the movie in the background playing along to the games, even joining the students in with their celebration of their evil overlord. Midway through a fight scene the bad guys stop to celebrate New Years. "Snowpiercer" is a very dark movie. As it continues along with every new revelation and plot twist you discover more and more about how awful this world is, and what things the characters have done to survive. But it never loses itself in melodrama, it never gives in the grime, it stays colorful and original.
|Captain America only had to fight Nazis and aliens - that's easy. This Chris Evans has it much worse.|
* Here is the unposted review, for those interested: "'As Above, So Below' is a movie that looked like a lot of fun to film. A bunch of actors strap GoPro cameras to their heads and run around the catacombs of Paris screaming at CG ghosts - I want that job. Unfortunately the movie itself is not fun." And that was as far as I got. There is nothing else to say.
** No relation to the horrible Stephenie Meyer/Andrew Niccol film from last year, "The Host", which is actually another movie with a great premise. An alien takes over a human body and has to learn to interact with a repressed human minority on Earth after an alien invasion. Even the love story aspect was clever: a love quadrilateral with only three bodies. If you've been following the trend so far, you'll deduce that movie was an abominable and hysterical train wreck. I'm actually disappointed "The Host" flared up and died so fast, I was really hoping it would join the Twilight movies as one of those legendary masterpieces of bad filmmaking. Something I could pass down to my children and my children's children as an inspiring tale of absolute failure. No such luck.
*** So far she's been in "The Grand Budapest Hotel", "Only Lovers Left Alive", and this, which all look like they are going on my Best-Of list in 2014. She's also scheduled to appear in a Terry Gilliam movie later this month, and if her current track record says anything, I should be really excited.