The first thing I want to say is that Snowpiercer is the first movie I have watched in 2014 where I audibly gasped, put my hands over my mouth, laughed, cried and actually pumped my fucking fist in the air during it. All those things. Me. In a movie. No studious calm. No looking for the strings on the marionette. I’d compare the journey to a roller coaster ride, but A) I’m not an asshole, and B) I’ve never ridden a roller coaster with Song Kang-ho. Snowpiercer, based on a French graphic novel, is the English language debut of Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, the man behind The Host. After getting dicked around by The Weinstein Company for a year, it’s finally hit stateside, in limited release. Personally, I think this film could have found a wider audience, and may yet on home video, but the constant battle in the media over its release has overshadowed the film itself. The premise is blunt and simple in the way filler episodes of Doctor Who tend to be, but the ensuing tale is spun with the finest yarn by Bong, a fine, inventive storyteller.
In 2014, a science experiment designed to combat global warming goes awry and freezes the whole world. Seventeen years later, the last of humanity survives on a train that runs on a perpetual motion engine, forever running around the world. The rich all live at the front and the poor at the tail. Curtis (Chris Evans) and fellow tail revolutionary Gilliam (John Hurt) conspire to revolt and make their way to the front to take over the train. Straightforward, right? Done poorly, this comes on SyFy at 2am and you pay attention intermittently between whiskey pulls, but done right, and you have a thrilling, affecting morality play. There’s a lot to applaud here. The striking visual storytelling is so efficient. I love how much of the world building is done in between the lines. Not since Children of Men has a world been so stunningly and fully realized on screen. The same way Alfonso Cuarón depicted a world without children, Bong makes you feel the weight of this civilization living on the caboose of a train. When a character pulls out a cigarette, the entire mob collectively tries to inhale the second hand smoke, a scent they’re more than a decade removed from. The unfortunate souls stuck on the tail feel lived-in, even beyond the dirty, early Jean Pierre Jeunet, mustard brown look of their garb. Their early interactions with the guards from the front are particularly soul crushing. Their resistance is so faint, as though they have been fighting for years. They have so little left and know they need to conserve for their eventual rush.
The film’s structure feels intensely linear, bolstered by the side-scrolling video game feel of moving through the train’s length. The initial sequence that sparks the revolt is breathtaking and gritty, managing to feel like you’re in the cramped train car without losing any clarity on screen. The war between the tail and the front has all the requisite stakes rising to feel like a really good football game. Though the plot and its obvious themes about class warfare are not subtle, adhering to smart, conventional thriller pacing keeps you engaged. The action is lo-fi and brutal, but you’re so invested in Evans and his ragtag crew that it feels bigger than anything you’ll see in other blockbusters this year.
I’m purposefully avoiding spoilers because with a story like this, the turns of the plot are classical in a sense. Ideally a twist in a story should be unsuspected but also inevitable, and Snowpiercer trades in that storytelling style. Marco Beltrami’s score gives it an old school feel, at times recalling Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 or the clever construction of a Preston Sturges film. The film’s forward propulsion makes every turn in the plot feel like a blunt force trauma, as lives are sacrificed, beliefs are compromised, and the audience is taken for the same uncertain ride as the film’s heroes.
As bleak and vicious as this film is, Snowpiercer is not without some dark humor. Tilda Swinton as Mason, the minister for Ed Harris’ patriarch Willford, brings an absurd amount of laughter to the film, fully losing herself in a comic book caricature presaging the colorful insanity that awaits further along the train. Song Kang-ho steals the entire show as the jailbroken security specialist/junkie enlisted to help them open the gates of each car, doing so much with every moment of screen time. His co-star from The Host, Go Ah-sung, as his daughter, has an amazing screen presence, and Octavia Spencer, as a tough, grief stricken mother, makes every film she’s in a little better. If anyone in the cast is lagging behind, it’s Chris Evans, here divorced from many of his strengths as a performer, but working no less hard than his co-stars to sell this story. The gruff, largely silent, reluctant leader role would have been a walk in the park for, say, Ryan Gosling, but Evans stretches himself to undercut his own charisma here as a shamed, self-loathing man just trying to make up for past sins. In a way, I think his every-man charm helps the role, as watching someone who looks and sounds like Evans brought so low by these circumstances makes the knife twist that much harder. That said, a line reading he delivers late in act two almost made me chuckle at the melodrama of it all, but his work in the subsequent scenes more than make up for it.
Slight spoilers ahead.
There are two sequences in particular worth highlighting. The first, early on, takes place at the exact moment in the siege where Evans and his group seem like they’ll just keep plowing through baddies with ease, high on desperation and anger. They open the doors to find a car full of hooded, axe-wielding madmen. It is absolutely frightening. This sequence starts off like the opening of Gangs of New York, with the acrid scent of violence in the air, and morphs into something of an homage to Oldboy, and then becomes this absurdist slice of arch comedy, as a piece of world building about holidays in the Snowpiercer universe interrupts the proceedings. I was enraptured the entire time. Truly astonishing filmmaking. The second made me burst into tears uncontrollably. One image. One powerful image I won’t spoil here, in the film’s climax. It may feel like the end of The Matrix Reloaded done right, but however unsubtle the metaphor, what Snowpiercer‘s final ten minutes says in stunning images about the nature of humanity and the troubling relationship between the haves and have-nots is worth the price of admission alone. (Also, special shout out to Alison Pill as the deranged teacher in That One Scene in the classroom. That scene is insane.)
Snowpiercer has action, heart, a sense of humor, and a powerful message. The cast is talented and diverse. Its pacing falters briefly in the second act, but is otherwise breathtaking from start to finish. It’s the kind of genre movie the world needs more of. Let’s hope this is the start of a new trend and not the death burble of one.
Snowpiercer is out now in select theaters and will be available for Video On Demand later this month.