(126 minutes, Rated R)
Another movie that has been placed on the back shelf hell by the The Weinstein Company, Snowpiercer had a substantial worldwide release in 2013. But according to rumors, the film was shelved to remove twenty minutes before it was released to American audiences: with its positive reviews from its overseas’ release, this means that time was removed because Americans are believed to be either stupid or folks with A.D.D. riddled minds. And for the most part, I cannot fully disagree with the Weinsteins’ mentality; however, by holding Snowpiercer back they made a vital mistake. The limited release will certainly hurt Joon-ho Bong’s stock in the Hollywood system, which is a shame because he created one of the smartest action flicks in years.
It could, perhaps, be the smartest film in that genre period because it has a story that is completely relevant today, but will certainly transcend time: it comments on the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor. Now, this Sci-Fi action drama takes place in a post apocalyptic world, where the extreme cold has forced the last members of civilization to inhabit a train; however, the seemingly miles long train, entitled Snowpiercer, is separated by class, with the rich in the front and the poor living in the inhospitable back. The plot follows Chris Evans’ Curtis and John Hurt’s Gilliam as they attempt another revolution to take over said train. And while that description sounds politically shallow and does not do the picture justice, the film has surprising depth to its violence, philosophy and severely cynical politics.
With that said, the important thing to emphasize about the story, is that it takes place in a bit of an oddball world; in a way, it makes fun of our current culture by showing it in a hyper-realized state. Between the over the top dependency on drugs, the oddly reminiscent club scene and its propaganda filled-state, one blatantly realizes the commentary on society. However, whether the views are blatantly or discreetly placed, it does not matter because its very easy to buy into this world; the details of the world and the intelligently thought out story mixed with impeccable characters will ensure the audience’s complete and utter immersion.
Furthermore, for such an oddball premise it has a very down to earth and relatable plot. Again, it is not hard to be empathetic to the ‘back of the train’s cause.’ They are ruled over by a fascist-like system, to the point where they have to stand in line to be counted before bed and dinner. And this fascist mentality of the richer residents, which also maintains a communist Russia and China feel, is both intimidating and frightening. But this is why I can understand the Weinsteins’ decision to hold this back because it maintains an extremely dark tone throughout.
Yes, there is always the violence and Snowpiercer wears the R rating on its sleeve; yet, it has no problem talking about taboo issues, which again, are very relevant in our current society. And for the sake of surprise I will not ruin some of these bleak issues, but the flick shows the most extreme level of what happens with an uncheck system, as well as, the darkest places the poor could go if left to fend for themselves. On top of this, this picture has one of the creepiest school scenes in recent film, which leaves the audience in a consistent state of unease. In this long sequence, Allison Pill plays the pregnant teacher in the all to colorful propaganda-filled classroom.
Like a deeply policed state, everything appears peachy on the surface of this school. And as the seemingly long scene progresses, I was waiting on the edge of my seat to see what happens with Pill’s seemingly innocent character: whose role is nothing but a cameo, yet the teacher is weirdly reminiscent of the Lady Macbeth line, “look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t.” But on an intellectual level, the school scene puts forth the idea that every part of the upper train buys into Wilfred’s (the totalitarian leader) mentality of ‘rich or nothing,’ and it is a scary comment about modern society; on top of this, watching the extent that the upper class is willing to go to cement their status, provides an uncomfortably real feeling, even if the movie is supposed to take place in a hyper-realistic state.
Now, whether it was intentional or not, Snowpiercer is sprinkled with elements of history throughout; for instance, the actual revolution and the established past rebellions are weirdly reminiscent of historical events. And is it really a coincidence that John Hurt’s Gilliam looks so much like Leon Trotsky? But that is why, at least for me, this film works because it has several layers to dissect and I probably did not even catch every reference. Now, mix this with an intriguing plot that will keep the audience guessing and director/writer Joon-ho Bong with writer Kelly Masterson created the recipe for success. Yes, it does have cheesy dialogue mixed in here and there, as well as, a fairly predictable and anti-climactic ending; however, this does not hinder anything because Snowpiercer maintains a higher level of intelligence, along with a fairly unpredictable story, which includes two extremely dark twists that are revealed prior to the conclusion.
On top of this, its fairly large cast is filled with recognizable faces; so much so, that when the revolution begins, the viewer will have no idea who will live to the end. But even with the diverse cast, almost every character is given a moment to shine: especially the smaller roles. Actors like Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, Alison Pill, Clark Middleton, Luke Pasqualino are all given the spotlight because the writers and director felt the need to make even the smallest supporting character well rounded. And that is another reason why I found this movie so special; whether it is the world or the characters, attention to detail was placed into every element of Snowpiercer: which make smaller roles like Clark Middleton’s Painter, who has maybe ten minutes of screen time, interesting and likable.
As for the larger roles, Tilda Swinton, who is downright unrecognizable, is wonderfully evil as the speaker for Wilfred. Yes, she is only a pawn in a bigger picture, but her character Mason has an aura that demands attention every time she is on screen. Also, there is the engineer Namgoong Minsoo played by the extremely famous Korean actor Kang-ho Song (Memories of Murder, The Host and The Good, the Bad and the Weird); the man has eyes like I have never seen before because they emote more in this flick than most actors could do in their lifetime. Needless to say, there is not a weak link in this group.
Finally, Chris Evans plays Curtis, who on the surface appears to be the atypical ‘goldenboy hero;’ but he also happens to be layered and emotionally distraught. The one thing I need to point out right away is that I truly believe this is Chris Evans’ greatest performance; this makes everything he previously done, including Captain America: The Winter Soldier, look amateur. And it does not hurt that he is benefitted with amazing writing and directing, which makes him look more of a badass than when he dons the Captain America garment. As his character evolves, and the seemingly stoic Curtis starts to wear his emotion on his sleeve, the audience begins to overly empathize with his struggle: to the point that his turmoil will cause the viewer to feel emotionally unsettled.
Now, it comes with great pleasure to state that the action matches the intelligent voice of the flick. While the first act overuses shaky cam, which I believe is the worst action technique next to fast editing, Bong seems to calm the camerawork as Snowpiercer progresses. And some of these sequences are bettered with the director’s use of slow motion; one scene with Chris Evans, which is eerily similar to Oldboy, has the protagonist dispatching baddies with a hatchet in slow motion. It could have been tacky, but Bong’s direction makes it the highlight.
With that said, for a picture that is so gruesome in some scenes, it oddly cut away from the violence in others; basically, some of the ‘cut aways’ felt out of place and deserving of a PG-13 rated flick. And it just felt that Bong, for some reason, was hesitant to show certain violence, which was strange after establishing such a bleak world. Yet, besides that it seems that Bong had a distinct vision and stuck to it; Snowpiercer has a well-defined visual flare that makes the world gorgeous, even with its dark colors. The director and his cinematographer, Hong Gyeong-Pyo, beautifully manipulate colors to immerse the viewer and present a contrasting world. For instance, the bright yellow coat of Claude (Emma Levie), Wilfred’s right hand advisor, perfectly contrasts the back of the train’s dark and cold look. But even the introduction of sunlight in the second act adds an extra layer of color to this already beautifully orchestrated picture.
The only other complaint that I have is that the CGI seems out of place and feels extremely dated, which is weird being that it had an astronomically high $39.2 million production budget. Perhaps, computer generated images cost more than the average film snob expects, but some scenes had CGI that would have been outdated in the 90s. But again, I can forgive this because it does not really take away that much from the overall experience.
Again, the reason why Snowpiercer stands out is because it treats its audience with respect, something that action films rarely do. And while the action is nowhere near the level of The Raid 2: Berandal, Snowpiercer makes up for it by being the smartest and most layered high concept picture I have ever seen: for once, I did not have to ‘check my brain at the door’ to enjoy a genre flick. And as anyone can guess, I highly recommend this to all who want a little bit more out of Hollywood; the biggest question is if there was twenty minute cuts, would the extra time have further improved or weakened the pace? If there is any chance to see an ‘extended cut,’ I will gladly sacrifice my money and time. Either way, do yourselves a favor and see this movie because at the moment it is my favorite of the summer and, perhaps, my favorite of 2014.