MPAA Rating: R / Genre: Sci-Fi Action/ Stars: Chris Evans, Song Kang Ho, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, Ko Asung, John Hurt, Mr. X, Allison Pill/ Runtime: 126 minutes
I feel I should start this off by letting you know movie goers that if you thought that Neill Blomkamp’s film “Elysium” was the bleakest looking dystopia that you had ever seen then you should seriously brace yourself. I say that because clearly if that is the case then you haven’t seen Bong Joon-ho’s film Snowpiercer yet. Indeed this is a film which can honestly best be described as what George Orwell would have chosen to write about if he had wanted to set his classic novel “1984” aboard the mad Blaine the Mono from Stephen King’s “The Waste Lands”. Indeed while it may be grim and fatalistic, this film still, thanks to great visuals and an amazing story and cast, truly does manage to pack a chilly and compelling punch.
The plot is as follows: based on the French graphic novel “La Transperceneige,” Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer” begins in an extremely not-too-distant future where mankind has attempted to launch a final attempt in a mission to halt the spread of global warming once and for all time. Needless to say however, the plan has (obviously) managed to backfire spectacularly and in the process has also plunged the world into a new ice age that has caused the extinction of all life forms. Luckily for humanity before all this transpired a wealthy industrialist named Wilford (an inspired bit of casting that I dare not reveal) decided to take several pages from Ayn Rand and constructed a high-speed luxury train that can circle the globe without stopping or suffering from the effects of the weather outside to the point that now we see humanity’s last remnants reside on the train with the well-to-do people living in comfort in the head cars and the poor and downtrodden masses stuck in the back occupying cramped quarters and forced to subsist on protein bars made from…well I don’t think it best to tell you exactly what is in the protein bars. Anywho after about seventeen years of these subhuman conditions the people in back are about to explode and a young man named Curtis (Chris Evans) is elected to lead the charge, although to be fair he’s reluctant to do so and for good reason seeing as there have been failed insurrections in the past and Curtis knows this fairly well, but this time old-timer and Curtis’ mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) has an idea that just might work. An idea involving one of the prisoners placed in cryogenic sleep, a man named Namgoong (Kang-ho Song), who was also one of the train’s original engineers before he turned into a junkie and thus he knows how to override the complicated system of locked doors to help with the forward progress. Thus after realizing that the armed guards sent by Wilford’s right-hand woman Mason (a nearly unrecognizable Tilda Swinton) may not be as threatening as they seem, Curtis, Gilliam, and Namgoong, along with a party that includes Curtis’ friends Edgar (Jamie Bell) and Tanya (Octavia Spencer) as well as Namgoong’s daughter Yona (An-sung Ko) set off for the head of the train in their quest to not only take over the train, but also to have a final confrontation with Wilford in order to take charge of their fates.
Now if the name “Gilliam” set off a little tremor of excitement when you heard it like it did in me that is no accident. I say that because, with an absolutely winning mixture of startling visuals, a head-spinning storyline and absolutely oddballish characters that don’t always conform to their presumed parameters, “Snowpiercer” is a film definitely in the vein of the works of the great director Terry Gilliam, especially his 1985 landmark film “Brazil”. However I feel I should add that while Bong may owe Gilliam a debt of inspiration this film is absolutely not a copycat effort by any means. I say that because even in his earlier films, Bong has managed to demonstrate a true eye for taking standard generic premises and twisting them around in new and unusual ways. Indeed even though to be fair the idea of watching people trying to push their way through the carriages of an unstoppable train definitely does seem to possess certain visual as well as dramatic limitations Bong and co-writer Kelly Masterson nevertheless always manages to keep things interesting.
Now from a visual perspective, “Snowpiercer” is absolutely never less than stunning. I say this because here is a film that provides us as an audience thrilling images that range from the desolate landscape outside (complete with an occasional body still frozen in mid-step) all the way to a full-size aquarium that’s beauty finds itself outdone only by its implausibility. Indeed despite the close quarters, the director also comes up with a number of absolutely inventive in how they’re staged action sequences with the most memorable of these including, but not limited to a first-person look through a pair of night vision goggles at a savage brawl in a completely dark car as well as a visit to a classroom run by a teacher (Alison Pill) with a truly unexpected lesson plan. Now from a dramatic standpoint, this is a film that does an amazing job at being equally effective in the way that it includes the expected pulpy thrills as well a sense of weirdo humor but also manages to include some unexpectedly affecting dramatic moments along the way such as one moment in which a character remarks that, because of conditions on the train, “I know what people taste like and I know babies taste best”. Indeed while this may sound like a really sick joke this line is actually delivered with the utmost seriousness possible, and due to that and because we care about who is saying this line, it actually turns out to be an unexpectedly powerful moment of human drama amidst the seemingly non-stop and rampant chaos and likewise this film’s final shot is also impressive in the way that it suggests triumph as well as potential terror at the same time.
Now Chris Evans is in top form here and he really truly makes Curtis an absolutely wonderfully stoic protagonist. Indeed although we understand his initial reluctance to lead this rebellion we still can’t help rooting for him once he decides to lead the charge all the way to the end, and even though to be fair this is a role that could easily fall into bland territory (and to be fair in other films quite often does), I feel that the inherent “American”-ness that helped really sell Evans as a wonderful choice for a certain Marvel hero really works wonders here and this also gives us a chance to hear Evans give a truly heartfelt soliloquy in the end that stands as some of his finest acting to date. Of course not wanting to be out-done by ol’ Stars and Stripes, I feel that the rest of the ensemble also manages to match his example and flesh out their characters quite wonderfully as well with special mention definitely needing to go towards Swinton’s slimy Goebbels-esque surrogate Mason, Spencer’s portrayal of Tanya where we see the lived-in dignity that aided her so much in “Fruitvale Station” on full and potent force here, John Hurt, who’s just a treasure to begin with, proving once again to be a joy to watch as the character of Gilliam who truly is one of the most complicated characters in the entire film and, of course, the appearance of a certain actor at the very end that not only does an extremely effective job of giving a face to the Big Brother figure that is Wilford, but also giving yet another phenomenal performance in a career that to be honest with you is chock-full of ones.
All in all though Snowpiercer truly is an ambitious and entertaining action film which also possesses an amazing cast, an imaginative story, and some absolutely well-written and quite potent social commentary. Indeed if you want to find a modern action film made within the last 10 years that plays its cards differently than most other films of its particular genre then this is one worth checking out! Trust me when I say you will not regret it! On a scale of 1-5 I give Snowpiercer a solid 4 out of 5.