Snowpiercer January 6, 2017
In case you thought the idea of sci-fi oriented, dystopian entertainment was dead thanks to the exploiting of the concept at the filthy hands of the YA novel, consider Bong Joon-ho’s wildly original Snowpiercer (2013) to be a heavy dose of reinvigoration. Starring Marvel favorite Chris Evans (who, for the first time in his nearly two-decade long career, is an acting revelation), the film takes place in a distant future in which the globe is experiencing its second Ice Age due to a failed attempt to reverse climate change.
In a desperate move to keep the human population intact, all are held captive on a miles long train — called the Snowpiercer — stuck in an endless loop around the Earth, each car separated by class. With the hellacious locomotive tightly controlled by transportation giant Wilford, no one is allowed to move about the Snowpiercer freely: the poor, only given one measly meal a day, are forced into the back, greeted with dire consequences if they revolt. The rich, treated like royalty, are unwilling to share their eternal wealth.
But as the film opens is it clear that Evans’s hero, the tragic Curtis, cannot stand to be dominated by Wilford any longer. He, along with a gaggle of other despairing passengers, would rather freeze in the brutal cold of the outside than be governed by a totalitarian regime for the rest of their miserable lives. And so making it to the front, particularly to confront the merciless Wilford himself, becomes the highest priority, even if that ambition gets him, and the rest of his makeshift family, killed.
And yet Snowpiercer feels like so much more than your average survivalist thriller. True that its action sequences are deft and pulse-pounding, that its stakes are convincingly high. But in a twist that doesn’t often become movies wherein staying alive is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, we’re as equally drawn to the atmosphere that surrounds all the carnage. Adapted from 1982 graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Bong succeeds in creating a setting of immediate danger also flavored by a dark sense of humor and by imagery too psychedelically futuristic to pass aside as mere pulp. In terms of vision is it among the most incomparable, rousingly realized action movies of the last twenty years; in terms of story is it seen-it-all-before familiar.
But its characterizations, infused by the madness that takes up so much of Bong’s feverish imagination, prevent overt predictability. The cast burgeons in memorable portrayals which complement the insanity that proliferates magnificently: Evans proves himself as an action hero with depth — the idealized troubles of Captain America never have spotlighted him as the vulnerable figure he could be — and Tilda Swinton (flourishing in one of the most indelible parts of the decade), alongside Alison Pill and John Hurt, stand out in parts that give them boundless opportunity to explore different shades of mania.
It’s an experience mirrored by few, and so it’s a shame that Snowpiercer remains to be an action masterpiece tucked away in the shadows, to be found within the thankless tangles of all those “most underrated” lists on websites only a handful care to click through. (We can thank distributor Harvey Weinstein for the film’s obscurity: after Bong refused to cut twenty minutes from the movie, the former damned Snowpiercer to limited release.) It’s a humdinger of its genre in need of a more widespread kind of love. I guess cult dedication will have to do for now. A-