Snowpiercer: This SciFi Train Delivers the Thrills

By June 30, 2014Movie Reviews

One train. Eight months. Much frustration during those times for sure, but at last it has arrived unscathed. While the battle between Harvey Weinstein and, well, everybody is how the film will appear in conversations, do remember to round things out with the fact that Snowpiercer is a must-see ride.

Soon after CW-7, a chemical designed to stop global warming, was dispersed, Earth fell into an eternal winter wiping all life outside the Snowpiercer. Things aren’t good on board either as a class system ensures the rich thrives and the poor suffers. Curtis Everett (Captain America’s Chris Evans) has endured long enough, and a revolution to take hold of the train’s “Sacred Engine” begins…

Out of the three English-language debuts from Korea’s top directing trio including Park Chan-wook (Oldboy), Kim Jee-woon (A Tale of Two Sisters) and, here, Bong Joon-ho, Snowpiercer is the most accessible. It seems to be a blend of Chan-wook’s suspense trip Stoker and Jee-woon’s bombastic The Last Stand – there’s style in the imagery but it doesn’t drench in symbolism and the plot while straightforward does more than just follow the formula. Perhaps it’s all because of how adaptive Joon-ho is, consistently demonstrating beautiful control over the cast, pacing and framing of shots no matter the genre. Or maybe it’s the ‘extrovert’ quality in his direction, fusing every film with the flair of a good, global-appeal-aplenty Hollywood production as opposed to heeding the mindset of “what would the Korean audience want to see?” seen in the majority of films from Joon-ho’s homeland.

And that’s why, despite working with a foreign crew, all the elements gel together so well on-screen. Ko Hyung-po’s (Mother) vibrant cinematography feels right at home with Marco Beltrami’s (I, Robot) bustling score and Ondrej Nekvasil’s (The Illusionist) top-notch designs giving a unique identity to every car. This team of three, along with Joon-ho’s fast-paced direction, makes the film feel surreal at times, now and then evoking that liveliness, page-turner quality comic books and graphic novels have. It’s a marvelous, and difficult, job because their adaptations seldom achieve this – so far the only one I’ve seen that has managed to ‘nail it’ throughout its runtime is Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2.

After seeing much of him as a superhero, it’s really refreshing when Evans chooses to go for ‘mortal’ roles like this. As seen in Sunshine and other indie features, he has the ability and the want to carry a film with his acting chops rather than his well-known looks. The revelation in the film, however, is Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton), who if not for the marketing campaign will be unrecognizable as the Snowpiercer’s evil Minister Mason. She is a magnet in the film, a villain with so much charisma to hook you right from the start. Surrounding the two are performers equally strong and enjoyable in presence – Jamie Bell (Tintin), Octavia Spencer (The Help), Ewen Bremner (Snatch.), Joon-ho’s regular Song Kang-ho (Thirst), Ko Ah-sung (The Host), Alison Pill (Milk), John Hurt (V For Vendetta) and Ed Harris (Apollo 13) – even when their screen-time is limited. After all, this is Curtis’s story.

Speaking of story, again, the one in Snowpiercer is very straightforward – but it serves as a solid enough foundation for writers Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) and the director to build more upon. Every line characters say will do either two things: advance the plot as par for the course or reveal new details about the train and the film’s universe. The discovery may prove challenging for viewers the first time around though, since the editing ensures the film never loses its momentum and the computerized imagery is uneven in some sequences. If you’ve seen The Host, you know that’s not Joon-ho’s strongest suit. Still, I’ve never heard of a story about pebbles derailing a train before…

Maybe as a final insult after failing to get what he wants, Weinstein decides to release Snowpiercer right when the new Transformers barrels into cineplexes. One can guess which one will be in the dust here. It’s a depressing affair, indeed, but the right ticket to spend on is the one that will get you onto a train, this train. All aboard!