Lamenting the lack of originality in film has become a popular pastime for many over the last couple of years. Despite the constant outcries for something new, the fact of the matter is that most people want what is comfortable and familiar. It is why films such as Snowpiercer and Enemy must settle for a limited theatrical and VOD split release while Guardians of the Galaxy opens in multiplexes everywhere.
Now you could say that this is comparing science fiction apples and oranges, but the fact is that they were all deemed very risky productions prior to their release. Guardians of the Galaxy was fortunate enough to have the Marvel/Disney luxury bus to drive it into theatres, while Snowpiercer was forced to ride the taxi of controversy that came with its acquisition by The Weinstein Company. Whether the controversy helped the film to its modest 4 million dollar box office take is still up for debate.
While The Weinstein Company can celebrate the film’s VOD success, there is something a little disheartening that the average filmgoer is not talking more about this film. Snowpiercer is an immensely entertaining piece of genre filmmaking that is dripping with creativity in every frame. Like a bolt of energy through the veins, the film is an exhilarating wake-up call to an otherwise sleepy sequel filled summer.
Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer is an environmental inspired action thriller unlike anything you have seen before. When an experiment to counteract global warming results in the dawn of a new ice age, the few remaining inhabitants on Earth find themselves stuck on the Snowpiercer. A luxury train that runs on a perpetual-motion engine, the Snowpiercer has become mankind’s last hope for survival. After seven years aboard the train, the class system which divides the rich (front sections of the train) and the poor (back end of the train) begins to reach its breaking point.
Living in cramped overcrowded quarters and fed their daily rations of protein bars, life at the tail of the train has been hell. Unwilling to endure this lifestyle any longer, Curtis (Chris Evans) leads a rebelling against the authority figures, such as Minister Mason (Twilda Swinton), in an attempt to make it to the front of the train. Hoping to get answers from Wilfred (Ed Harris), the seemingly omnipotent creator of the train, Curtis and his followers, including Edgar (Jamie Bell), Tanya (Octavia Spencer), Namgoong (Song Kang-ho), Gilliam (John Hurt) and Yona (Go Ah-sung), quickly learn that achieving their goal will be much harder than anticipated.
Directed by Bong Joon-ho, Snowpiercer wastes no time immersing us in the high concept world the characters exist in. One of the film’s greatest strengths is how it manages to feel like a natural progression despite continual tonal shifts. As if stepping into different rabbit holes with each new open door, Bong Joon-ho makes every cabin feel like its own mini-movie. Whether it was the dark horror of the “axe soldiers”, the shoot ‘em up action of the bath house, or the twisted propaganda satire in the school car, there is much to savor in this ambitious film.
While Chris Evans and Song Kang-ho are very strong in the film, really there is not a bad performance in the bunch, it is Tilda Swinton’s villainous Mason who evokes the most glee. Our twisted guide through portions of the circus that is the Snowpiercer train, Swinton’s Margaret Thatcher inspired Mason is the perfect mixture of ruthless dictator and sniveling henchwoman. Only concerned with maintaining order at all costs, Mason takes great pleasure in watching the punishment of those beneath her who step out of line. In a year that has seen Swinton command our attention in both Only Lovers Left Alive and The Grand Budapest Hotel, it is her work as Mason that most will remember.
Despite its unique tone and wonderful performances, Snowpiercer is not without its flaws. The last twenty minutes or so, arguably one of its most grounded moments, feels out of place with the bulk of the film. This could have been avoided had Bong Joon-ho added a few more reflective moments throughout the film leading up to the big revelation. Outside of the wonderful sequence at the sushi bar, there are very few “breathers” in the film. A little more focus away from the action would also help to provide a little clarity to the strange telepathic connection that Yona has with the Terminator-like Franco the Elder (Vlad Ivanov).
Though the cautionary environmental message gets lost underneath the weight of the themes of class system injustice, Snowpiercer strengths far outweigh its missteps. Bong Joon-ho has crafted a film that is fresh, vibrant, and unlike anything you will see this year.