Snowpiercer (2013) / Sci Fi-Action
MPAA Rated: R for strong, bloody violence, language and some drug content
Running Time: 126 min.
Cast: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Song Kang-Ho, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, Ewen Bremmer, Alison Pill, Kenny DOughty
Director: Bong Joon-Ho
Screenplay: Bong Joon-Ho, Kelly Masterson (based on the graphic novel, "Le Transperceneige")
Review published June 11, 2014
Based on a graphic novel from France (though seemingly lifting more from the 2007 video game, "BioShock"), Snowpiercer is a dystopic science-fiction flick directed and co-written by South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (Mother, The Host), in his first predominantly English-language film, which did gangbusters in his native country, but has floundered considerably in terms of how to sell to a world market, despite sporting quite a few recognizable Hollywood actors on board. It's essentially a futuristic dark comedy peppered with some bloody and brutal violence, and the lurching shifts between absurdity and grimness, perhaps reminiscent to Terry Gilliam's Brazil (as an homage, the John Hurt character is actually named Gilliam) in tone and some satirical subtext, is not likely to play well to mainstream audiences just looking for kick-butt action and a few good yuks.
The basic story involves an Earth of the year 2031 that has been covered with snow and ice, in a failed effort to curb the progression of global warming, so pervasive that it has effectively stamped out nearly all life on the planet. The only surviving humans left inhabit a mile-long intercontinental train that never stops its infinite loop around most of the Old World. A class system defines much of the clientele on board the ark-like train, with those in the front living in the lap of luxury, while those in the rear are living in densely-populated squalor. After 17 years, the riders in the back have had it, and they're going to take the front of the train by deadly force if necessary, in order to bring some semblance of equality on board.
Chris Evans (The Winter Soldier, The Avengers) plays promising back-of-the-train leader Curtis, who is being coached by the current elder, Gilliam (Hurt, Only Lovers Left Alive). What he leads to, ultimately, is for a violent coup against the armed guards holding them back. Eventually, they secure the services of Namgoong Minsu (Kang-ho, Memories of Murder), a South Korean who knows his way through hi-tech security doors that need to be opened if the plebs are going to have a fighting chance.
Tilda Swinton (The Grand Budapest Hotel) steals her scenes, disguised under some false teeth, a prosthetic nose, and makeup, as Minister Mason, a comical representative for the snootier class that inhabits the front of the train. It is her position to convince those in the rear of the train to assume their proper position in the hierarchy that the train's inventor, Wilford, has determined for them. Her metaphor of, "You wouldn't wear a shoe on your head or a hat on your feet", is one of the film's more amusing metaphors used to sway skeptical paupers as to why they need to stick with their lot in life, regardless of how little sense it may make.
Joon-ho's film is long on imagination, especially in the vibrant set design for each progressive train car, but short on narrative cohesiveness. There's little in the way of solid backstory for us to hang on to in order to properly get into these characterizations. It's also too simplistic in its representation of a possible future, such that the satire is obvious in its intent, and too far removed from reality to make anything but the most obvious comparisons to the current plight of the disparity between the world's haves and have-nots. Chris Evans, so charismatic in the Captain America and Fantastic Four films, barely registers as the star here, not much more than a tall galoot with a squint and a beard. The garish garb of the front-trainers makes the entire effort feel like Hunger Games on a train, except without the charisma of Jennifer Lawrence to anchor it.
If you're expecting violent action scenes, you'll get them in abundance, but the over-reliance on stylization, as well as the heavy-handed doses of brutality, render the effectiveness of the humor and panache of the rest of the film rather moot. It's also at least a half hour too long, with needless scenes that could have easily been trimmed down, if not excised altogether (not surprisingly, the Weinstein Company initially fought for one of their infamous edits to play better for American audiences.) Overall, it's not a bad looking film, and so oddball that it is almost entertaining enough to recommend solely based on how crazy it gets, but it is just too exhausting in thematic repetition and jarring in tone to embrace fully. Like the train at the center of the film, Snowpiercer is a loopy but grueling ride.
©2014 Vince Leo