After a long wait, in which it was acquired by The Weinstein Company and threatened with being recut for North American distribution, Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer has finally made its way to U.S. cinemas. The film is not only the English-language debut for the director of such great films as The Host and Mother, but is one of the most expensive Korean films ever made. It is based on a French graphic novel named Le Transperceneige, and tells the story of dystopian future in which the world has been frozen over, and the last human survivors live on a self-powered train that perpetually circles the globe. The train, as in every respectable science fiction story, is organized in a class system, in which the passengers at the front (“first class”) enjoy a luxurious lifestyle, while the passengers in the back (“freeloaders”) don’t have it much better than the prisoners of a concentration camp. This all sounds like typical science fiction bullshit, and it is, but the gratifyingly surprising thing about Snowpiercer is that it transcends the crutches of its premise through some truly inspired filmmaking.
If you think that the world being reduced to a single train that makes its way through the frozen earth is silly and makes no sense, then you shouldn’t worry, the movie does a pretty effective job of explaining exactly how that came to be, and how the system within the train works. Not every question is answered, and as it’s mostly the case with this kind of movie, many thing don’t seem to make complete sense, however, the fact that the movie’s world is so well realized is just one of the triumphs of the incredibly careful screenplay by Bong and Kelly Masterson. The bulk of the movie is devoted to the revolutionary attempt by the passengers of the back of the train, who are led by Captain America himself Chris Evans, in trying to get to the front of the train and take control of the engine, hoping it would put an end to the injustices they are being subject to. It’s a simple premise, even structurally, as the characters literally move forward through the train’s cars, and one in which the filmmakers find room to come up with incredibly clever and imaginative scenarios.
As a piece of action filmmaking, Snowpiercer is extraordinary, superior to most of the blockbusters that Hollywood will produce this year. It also brings a very welcome distinct sensibility, which is most clear in two cases: First, in its use of violence, which no matter how excessive and stylized (and this is an incredibly violent movie) always lands with the weight and unnerving discomfort that all representations of violence should elicit in their audiences. Even what would be faceless henchmen are awarded a level of weight in their deaths. Second, that even with its dark tone and harrowing premise, it never fails to find human elements and emotions for us to latch on to, which is really a fancy way of saying that the movie has a fantastically dark sense of humor that it (mostly) manages to balance perfectly with the more serious aspects of its story. The perfect example of how this works comes in a character played by Korean actor Song Kanh-ho, who straddles the line between sarcasm and sad despair, and don’t even get me started on Tilda Swinton, who plays the evil character in charge of keeping the back of the train in order in a delirious performance that gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “chewing the scenery”.
To be completely honest, the movie’s final act loses a lot of the momentum, and stretches into an elongated ending that is a tad disappointing considering what came before. But only a tad, because the experience of watching Snowpiercer is one of the most exciting times I’ve had in a movie theater all year. Just the fact that it is not a movie made in order to start a franchise makes it all the more exciting, just not knowing where the plot is going to go next. As far as it is a piece of science fiction, I guess you could make an argument that it is a metaphor for immigration (I know I would), but it is really not as a thought-provoking movie that Snowpiercer shines the most, but as a carefully calibrated piece of blockbuster entertainment that is so intense and thrilling that it almost becomes a purely primal experience.
Grade: 8 out of 10