A film review by Craig J. Koban July 29, 2014

RANK: #21


2014, R, 126 mins.


Chris Evans as Curtis  /  Jamie Bell as Edgar  /  John Hurt as Gilliam  /  Tilda Swinton as Mason  /  Alison Pill as schoolteacher  /  Octavia Spencer as Tanya  /  Ewen Bremner as Andrew

Directed by Bong Joon-ho  /  Written by Bong and Kelly Masterson

To use the phrase “unlike anything I’ve seen before” in just about any film review feels like an overused cliché (and I’m certainly guilty of exploiting it from time to time).  

Alas, trust me when I say that you will most likely not see another post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller quite like South Korean filmmaker Boon Joon-Ho’s SNOWPIERCER, which hurtles itself at viewers with a reckless abandon, a daring originality, and, quite frankly, an endlessly provocative lunacy and strangeness that stays with viewers after seeing it.  SNOWPIERCER reminded me of the sensation of watching THE MATRIX for the first time; although the two films could not be any different, both explore an overdone genre premise and infuse a breathless sense of odd and ethereal novelty into them.  Considering the many tired and conventional summer films that I’ve seen thus far, SNOWPIERCER emerges as a proverbial diamond in the rough. 

The film - based on the French graphic novel LE TRANSPERCENEIGE by Jacque Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette – marks Bong’s English language debut, but it nonetheless typifies the bizarrely idiosyncratic nature of his past films like THE HOST, which took stale genre stapes and twisted and turned them is refreshingly bizarre and novel ways.  Like most post-apocalyptic films, SNOWPIERCER does explain the origins and nature of the global catastrophe that caused the world to turn upside down, but it does so expeditiously and doesn’t dwell or waste time on exposition.  All you need to know is this: In 2014 a scientific experiment to counter the effects of global warming goes horribly afoul, leaving the planet exposed to a new ice age that has blanketed the world in snow and inhospitable arctic conditions.  Nearly all known life of Earth went extinct as a direct result.   

Some of humanity did survive, largely thanks to a super wealthy and super enigmatic industrialist named Wilford (Ed Harris), who built an incomparably long high speed train dubbed "The Snowpiercer,” which traverses a track that spans the world and is propelled by a self-sustaining, perpetual motion engine (so, in short, it never stops and never runs out of gas).  Like many other dystopian views of the future, the Snowpiercer is segregated based on class lines: The wealthy 99 per cent live in luxury in the head cars, whereas the poor one per cent live in dirty, disease-riddled discomfort and poverty in hind cars.  Needless to say, this causes great friction between both parties. 



After nearly 20 years of life on the never-ending train, the people of the tail end of the social hemisphere have had just about all that they can take.  Unfortunately, Wilford’s armed patrols make it next-to-impossible for even a well-planned rebellion to be successful.  Curtis (a never been better or more headstrong Chris Evans) decides to lead the charge of a new rebellion based on a plan by one of the train’s oldest inhabitants, Gilliam (John Hurt).  They will make it to the cryogenic sleep chamber of Namgoong (Kang-ho Song), who just happens to be one of the train’s earliest engineers and knows the ins and outs of trying to make forward progress through to the front end of it.  When Curtis makes the discovery that Wilford’s right hand woman Mason (played in a crazy-eyed performance by Tilda Swinton) and her guards are not armed, per se, he decides to spring into action with his allies and fight their way to Wilford himself, who lives a life of Howard Hughes-like solitude at the very front of the train.   

Visually, SNOWPIERCER is masterful, and its steampunk infused aesthetic and craftsmanship echoes films like Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL.  Boon understands the inherent limitations of filming action on the cramped and confined spaces of a train and makes it look as arresting as possible.  The Snowpiercer becomes an oppressive character in its own right, and Boon uses a stark monochromatic palette and great shadow play to evoke a dreadful sense of claustrophobia that exists for its downtrodden denizens.  Even as Curtis and his companions methodically make their way through to the upper class quarters of the train – especially during one ingeniously staged sequence featuring Alison Pill as a grade school teacher whose outward congeniality masks inner homicidal tendencies – you witness Boon pulling the carpet out from under us. Just when you think SNOWPIERCER is going to be one kind of stylistic endeavor, it dares to make stark 180-degree turns to subvert our expectations. 

Boon is also remarkably astute and precise on the action front.  The $40 million budgeted SNOWPIERCER contains numerable scenes of axe swinging, bone crunching and artery spewing mayhem…all done thanklessly within remarkably closed quarters (people that are even remotely squeamish need not apply…trust me).  Yet, for as wholeheartedly gruesome as many of the film’s most ugly and violent skirmishes are, Boon finds remarkable invention for staging and choreography that gives them an almost grotesque beauty.  One sequence – a showstopper – involves a bravura and sadistically savage donnybrook between Curtis and his men and Wilford’s goons…all done in the dark, shot via a first person perspective through night vision goggles.  We have all seen so many countless action scenes in films like this before, which makes what Boon achieves here all the more refreshing.  I love it when filmmakers revel in showcasing old set pieces in new ways unseen before.   

It would be easy to write off SNOWPIERCER as a work of startling art direction and impeccable craft without much care in the world as to the subtle nuances of character and story, but Boon and co-writer Kelly Masterston realize that great sci-fi works when the actors are invested in the material.  Chris Evans has emerged as an actor with a solid understated charisma and charm (see the CAPTAIN AMERICA films), but here he brings a whole other level of dark psyche to his character of Curtis, a haunted and ferociously driven man willing to do just about anything to secure the freedom of his people.  The film also is bolstered by resoundingly solid supporting performances by John Hurt and Tilda Swinton, the latter who’s almost unrecognizable as Wilford’s chief enforcer; she brings a darkly comic and unpredictable edge to her character that gives the film a sense of impending unease throughout.  Kang-ho Song adds a whole other emotionally grounded layer to an already “out-there” film.  Despite all of SNOWPIERCER’s dazzling artistry and pulse pounding action, it’s nice to see Boon pull back and let the interplay of the actors help sell the reality of his world. 

SNOWPIERCER is not completely air tight, as it did leave me asking a few questions about its own logic (like, for instance, how has this non-stop strain never been derailed in nearly two decades by a random avalanche?).  Still, those are minor gripes, because Boon evolves with such an assured and confident vision and handling of the inherent high concept material that you’re willing to forgive its foibles.  It’s one of those rare effects and action driven sci-fi thrillers with a provocative socio-political underbelly and strong performances to help keep everything on track, and those are not a dime-a-dozen these days.  SNOWPIERCER, in its current form, almost didn’t happen, which would have been disgraceful.  The Weinstein Company disliked the 126-minute cut of the film and threatened to edit it down by 20 minutes.  Under pressure, the studio relented to Boon’s cut, but in the process – and perhaps as a result – drastically limited its North American release to a pitiful number of screens.  

That’s a shame.  SNOWPIERCER, wherever and however you see it, deserves to be looked at. 

  H O M E