Critics thoroughly enjoyed – up to a point, of course – their bi-annual tradition of slaughtering a new Transformers movie this past weekend. Along the way, several critics and bloggers tried to argue that sci-fi fans, action devotees and apocalyptic aficionados would be better off skipping Transformers and finding the much smaller but more substantial Snowpiercer, from Korean action favorite Bong Joon-Ho. As it turned out, they might have been on to something.
An effort to stop global warming in 2014 has only succeeded in dooming Earth to another ice age. The only refuse for the last remaining humans is a super powered train called the Snowpiercer, built by industrial titan Wilford. It has circled around the icy globe for almost 18 years and survived the killer elements outside – but on the inside, discontent is brewing from the lower class passengers doomed to stay on the dilapidated tail section, while the wealthy enjoy life in front. Their goal is to get all the way to that front, and to its God-like perpetual engine, to take control and overthrow the class system. But as determined mastermind Curtis, his crippled mentor Gillian, and drug-addicted security expert Nam lead the rebellion closer to the front, the cost of it all – and the futility – gets higher and higher.
Snowpiercer debuted in Korea last year, and is just making its way to limited release in the State. Nevertheless, this is Ho’s English-language debut, with a cast of familiar faces like Chris Evans, John Hurt, Ed Harris, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Alison Pill and Tilda Swinton getting themselves grimed up – although Swinton is a notable exception to that trend.
America is well used to post-apocalyptic nightmare films and action rides, and to films that threaten to bring the apocalypse. Big concept action films are also getting grimmer and grittier, thanks in no small part to Christopher Nolan. As such, although Snowpiercer is quite outside the American studio system, it may be easy to think Joon-Ho is merely putting a fresh coat of paint on an old formula, despite the unique setting.
Joon-Ho does create a convincing coat of paint in regards to the train, even if the grim, grey future look and people look familiar. He wastes little time dropping us into the setup of a rebellion in the planning stages – even if they don’t have much in place beyond that yet. But when the march to the front begins, Joon-Ho truly unleashes his power in a way that makes Snowpiercer put hyperkinetic American action films to shame.
This becomes clear in a big showdown when the rebels confront ax-welding officers, and fight then in a battle that doesn’t require a hundred quick cuts a second. The near-elegance of it is merely the beginning, as the battle is interrupted by an event that shows how insignificant their struggle is in the big picture – and how nature continues to have the true upper hand. But the battle does resume, in a subsequent sequence that is the best use of infrared since Silence of the Lambs.
Joon-Ho then goes even further in a wildly satirical, and ultimately even deadlier, sequence inside a schoolroom of pure brainwashing. By then, it’s obvious that although all the action is inside a train, Joon-Ho has made each car of Snowpiercer a unique world onto itself. But they aren’t worlds with high survival rates, as Joon-Ho turns out to be quite unmerciful in mowing down combatants, no matter how important they seem or who plays them.
Snowpiercer could be content to be a series of big, stunning set pieces that skirts around a big message, like many of its American peers. However, the pieces come together into a bigger whole as things go along, as relief is sparing and hope becomes more and more fragile. In fact, it is three separate monologues and series of revelations from Curtis, Nam and the long awaited Wilford that give Snowpiercer a crushing final impact – setting Joon-Ho up to deliver the only logical conclusion.
While the premise, genre and setup may be old hat by recent Hollywood standards – both with the post-apocalypse and the social message – Snowpiercer does in fact have more inventive ways to revitalize it than just putting it on a train. And just as the setting reveals more layers and proves to be less simple than at first glance, so do its characters as well. It certainly makes a second viewing more essential after taking it all in, after seeing how this world and its inhabitants show more of themselves and what’s underneath – down to the most soul crushing details.
The same principle applies to Evans, who puts on a beard and frowns more to get away from the image of Captain America. It certainly seems like a typical move for a big budget action star to go gritty and play a more ‘realistic’ hero/savior. But Curtis isn’t the typical reluctant hero/savior, as Evans shows in a career-high gradual breakdown that turns devastating in the final act. Although Captain America went through more heartache than usual in The Winter Soldier earlier this year, it still has nothing on what Evans gets to work with here.
Among the all-stars behind him, Swinton is obviously the most theatrical of the bunch, and the closest thing to comedy relief, which is most welcome in a film like this. However, even Swinton’s outrageousness is challenged by Pill in her cameo at the schoolroom. But on the other end of the spectrum, Harris embodies the cold, cruelly logical side of oppression in the finale. Hurt, Spencer and Bell make an eclectic mix of rebels behind Curtis – yet Korea’s Kang-ho Song eventually comes to upstage them as Nam.
Raving about Snowpiercer may be less of a way to praise the film itself, and more of a way to bash Hollywood and the likes of Bay for their action sins, especially with Age of Extinction rampaging through American theaters. But when the timing stops being so ironic and the film reaches more American eyes, Joon-Ho and his powerful, brutal, metaphorical train can take a victory ride on their own.
Snowpiercer has a collection of stunning set pieces that aren’t just repeating themselves, supported by an allegorical story with deceptively simple meanings, along with characters and actors who unveil their own surprise tricks as well. In any language, country and budget, that is a badly needed win for this genre.