Snowpiercer (2014)


Starring Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Alison Pill, Tilda Swinton, Song Kang-ho.

Directed by Bong Joon-ho

Snowpiercer’s road to U.S. screens has been as long and treacherous as a civil uprising itself. Financed by at least five countries and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (The Host), the much buzzed about adaptation of the French graphic novel was a runaway smash in every country but the States, where distributor Harvey Weinstein attempted to completely re-cut (i.e., dumb down) the movie for American audiences.

After a highly publicized fight between the director and the studio, Bong eventually won the battle to release the film uncut in the States – but as a result Weinstein dumped it into only a handful of theaters instead of the 250-screen roll-out that was initially planned.

It’s hard to imagine why a studio would have so little faith in this movie because as it stands, Snowpiercer ranks up there with bleak visionary films like Mad Max, Blade Runner and Brazil. Bong is clearly influenced by all the great sci-fi directors (even going so far as to name one of his characters “Gilliam”) but never lowers himself to imitate them. Mixing in boundless creativity and satire with shades of Bioshock-style steampunk, this is one of the rare apocalyptic genre films that gets everything right.

The set-up is fantastic: In an effort to combat global warming, our latest, greatest technology inadvertently backfires and turns Earth into a freezing wasteland devoid of all life. The last of humanity is holed up on the titular Snowpiercer – a powerful perpetual-motion train designed by a mad industrialist named Wilford that contains its own ecosystem and moves continuously on a vast cross-country rail system. The train is populated largely by those wealthy enough to afford a spot on the steel ark, and they live comically decadent lifestyles while the engine spins continuously around the globe. But it isn’t a paradise for the hundreds of lower-class people in the back cars, who were so “generously” saved only to live cramped existences where they wallow in poverty and abuse at the hands of Wilford’s totalitarian police force.

The story picks up 17 years into the Snowpiercer’s run, where a whole generation has grown up in the back of the ghetto cars. Previous revolts against Wilford have failed, but Curtis (Evans) believes he has a real shot at it and rallies an eclectic cast of characters on a bloody car-by-car revolt to reach the engine and take over the train.

Snowpiercer is a genre movie lover’s movie, full of concise storytelling, pointed social commentary and impressive action sequences that make the most of the cramped train environment. Most dystopian sci-fi movies drop the ball when it comes to coherent storytelling, but the script by Bong and Kelly Masterson does an amazing job at world building. Through great character interaction and some warped set pieces, the story manages to give a wealth of exposition and logic that support its heightened reality while keeping the story and action moving along at breakneck speed.

The decision to dump the movie in the States is even more perplexing when you consider the all-star cast of (mostly) English-speaking actors. Evans himself gives what is easily the performance of his career and takes his reluctant leader to places that most A-list superstars would be terrified to go. The rest of the performers – from Tilda Swinton’s over-the-top Margaret Thatchery dictator to Kang-ho Song’s junkie security-expert – are note-perfect, and the entire international cast run the gamut of every acting style there is. That could be a turn-off for those who want their entertainment to walk the straight and narrow track, but Snowpiercer has much loftier ambitions.

If this were the 1980’s, Snowpiercer would be one of the biggest films around because it’s exactly the kind of topical ultra-violent sci-fi masterpiece George Miller or Paul Verhoeven would’ve made in their prime. It’s hard to imagine a genre film of this caliber – especially one headlined by one of Hollywood’s biggest stars – getting so mistreated when it has all the makings of an instant classic. Whether that speaks to the increasingly commercialized film industry or just the shortsightedness of Harvey Weinstein is anyone’s guess, but this is a film that will continue to be found and celebrated long after every terrible Transformers movie is a distant memory.

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