Movie Review: Snowpiercer
For many years, we have been thoroughly fascinated and horrified at the thought of the human race ending in some massive cataclysm. The lingering threat of nuclear annihilation led James Cameron to make this shadow of death act as a backdrop to his Terminator films. George Miller saw chaos in a barren wasteland with Mad Max, as the last dregs of humanity battled over dwindling fuel supplies. And in Waterworld, global warming sent the last of humanity adrift on rising tides, as many searched for the promise of dry land.
Though leave it to South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho, to find a way to twist a future story around a premise noone has ever considered: a train. This brings us to his 2013 release Snowpiercer, based on the graphic novel by Jacque Lob, and Jean-Marc Rochette.
In July of 2014, a chemical dubbed CW7, was distributed into the upper atmosphere, as a way to reverse the greenhouse effect on our planet. The agent meant to lower the world’s temperatures in a manageable increment, instead plunged the planet into a new ice age.
Of those known to survive, were those that made their way onto a special train: a massive, multi-car construction created by a rich train enthusiast known only as Mr Wilford.
Passage on this train worked like any passage: 1st class, economy, and so on and so forth. In the tail end of the train, live the dregs of this society: those who barely made it on before the cold completely engulfed the world. As they did not pay for passage, they are at the lowest rung of this society.
For over 17 years, the self-sustaining train has continuously followed the same path, crossing through 5 continents. To those in the tail, the denial of certain amenities or even respect at times, has worn down on many. Key among them is Curtis (Chris Evans), a man who wants to make his way to the front of the train, hoping to improve the lives of those in the tail. Helping him in his plans are his friend Edgar (Jamie Bell), and an old man named Gilliam (John Hurt). Gilliam acts as a sage of sorts regarding the train, and it is Curtis’ hope that he will become the new leader of the Snowpiercer.
Their plan involves freeing a man named Minsoo Namgoong (Song Kang-Ho), who was said to have designed the wiring system that activates the train car doors. As well, an unknown figure keeps sneaking Curtis and his cohorts small messages, that helps drive them to spring their plan into effect, as well as avoid several close calls.
A mystery also unfolds, when some unknown persons from the front of the train come to take two children from the tail, leaving their parents to plead with Curtis to get them back.
Originally released in 2013, Snowpiecer is just now getting a release in the states through The Weinstein Company. What may seem hard for some people to believe, is that for a film by a South Korean director like Bong, it boasts a list of names that almost anyone over here would recognize: Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, and many more.
Evans plays Curtis as a little less determined, and more beaten down by the 17 years he’s been confined to the tail of this train. With his bearded looks, there are times that Evans almost resembles Christian Bale, but his actions definitely show him to be more brutal than we’ve probably even seen him as Captain America.
One of the most intriguing castings for those who know Bong’s work, is the return of actors Song Kang-Ho, and Ko Ah-sung. Both played a father and daughter in Bong’s 2006 release, The Host. Here, their roles are almost counter to that film, in that Song’s father figure is a bit more knowledgeable, whereas Ko plays his daughter as somewhat naive, and almost childlike at times. Unlike some of the survivors, she has only known the world inside of the train.
This isn’t the only thing Bong seems to reference from The Host, as in that film, the cause of a creature’s mutation was by dumping harmful chemicals into a nearby river, much like the chemicals dispersed into the atmosphere in Snowpiecer, which unleashed the new ice age.
Each new car that is entered into, becomes almost like a new ecosphere for the tail people to enter into. Some are horrifying, while others are hard to believe exist. Some even feel like decadent conceptual leftovers from the Panem Capitol in The Hunger Games.
In fact, don’t be surprised if you do feel a slight Hunger Games vibe at times. One such reminder is Tilda Swinton in the role of Mason, an ambassador for Wilford, that at times seems as empty-headed and uninformed as Effie Trinket. Though in truth, Swinton’s character is one of the most memorable of the supporting characters. With her pronounced upper teeth and large-rimmed glasses, you just want to laugh at her and punch her at the same time.
Alison Pill is also a strange ‘ray of sunshine’ in the film, having a brief role that has to be seen to be believed.
One of the things Bong has been known for in films like The Host, is leaving certain key elements unanswered, and it seems he may do that a few too many times to allow smooth passage for the film.
Some friends I was with were perplexed when in one room, the group finds themselves facing off against a couple dozen men in black masks, with a car that has chains hanging from the ceiling. The train car they are in doesn’t really seem to give a purpose for their dress. My one assumption was the group had found their way into a butcher’s car, but there was little to back up my thinking.
As well, 3/4 of the way through, the film begins to focus on a henchman that almost becomes Terminator-like in his pursuit of Curtis after awhile, though a reason is never really given as to the motivation.
Word was that the film was held up from release over here, because Harvey Weinstein wanted to edit the feature (it clocks in at 2 hours and 6 minutes). Bong was said to be in on the cut, but it feels that while it is passable, some further edits could have been made to tighten it up at times. However, one can at least be glad that he doesn’t overdue a lot of the visual effects work.
While visual effects are utilized for some nice invisible effects work, they are largely utilized for some sequences seen outside of the train. Luckily, Bong handles the exterior views in a minimalist way, keeping an almost claustrophobic feel similar to Paul Greengrass’ film, United 93.
With its bloody violence in some areas, Snowpiercer has relegated itself to that strange world these days, known as the limited release. While it has had a larger theatrical release in South Korea and overseas, it has seen a limited theatrical release in the last few weeks within the US, and is said to be coming to Video On Demand sometime this week.
The final product adds a new look into apocalyptic features, but the film can become jumbled up at times. Given its juxtaposition of some scenes that may clash at times, one can’t help but be put in mind of the works of filmmaker Terry Gilliam. However, Snowpiercer has some deeper action going for it than even Gilliam could muster. As well, don’t be surprised if you pick up a small Wizard of Oz vibe through the piece. This extends to Mr Wilford, who is often talked of, and symbolized by a circular symbol with a “W” on it.
In the end, Snowpiercer wants to be a lot of things: a political drama, an action feature, and even a story about the human condition. However, it just can’t seem to properly balance all of these things, causing the audience to pitch up and down at times, but not enough to properly leave on a satisfying conclusion. The film ends up feeling like it had good intentions, but it just couldn’t fire on all cylinders to properly pull this train into the station, in my opinion.