Snowpiercer had a tumultuous journey to the screen, with extensive controversy over whether distributor Harvey Weinstein would trim the film’s running time or release it at the length director Bong Joon-ho intended. It set up the film as a cinephile and geek crusade, which has likely helped explain the ecstatic reaction the film has received from many viewers, particularly those who are vocal on the Internet. And, Snowpiercer does deserve much of that acclaim. It’s a throwback to the more intelligent, socially relevant blockbuster films of the ’80s, and though filled with special effects, does maintain a strong focus on character and ideas throughout.
The film is set in the near future, when an attempt to fix global warming has swung the climate violently in the opposite direction, creating an uninhabitable polar world in which the remaining human population survives aboard a train. The train is divided by class, with poorer people living in squalor and the wealthy enjoying extravagant luxury. We follow Curtis (Chris Evans of The Avengers) as he attempts to level the social playing field.
The film begins on a weaker note, as we’re plunged into the dystopian steampunk future taken directly from the films of Jean Pierre Jeunet or Terry Gilliam. One of the prominent characters in the film is even named Gilliam, in case you weren’t sure of the homage. Visually and tonally it feels like a bit of a retread, and, from there, it takes the film a while to get going.
But, once it’s going, it really moves. The addition of lock operator/drug addict Namgoong Minsoo really kickstarts the film, and as the group moves through the train, we get to see more fascinating layers of this world that are wonderfully original. As with many Korean dramas from the recent boom in Korean auteur filmmaking, the film is filled with original action sequences and at time sadistic violence. A torchlit fight scene set in a dark train car is a particular highlight.
One major downside for me, which admittedly is an upside for some, is the absurdly over the top performance by Tilda Swinton as a bureaucratic representative of the upper class machine. From her styling down, she’s so over the top, it takes away from the film. The subtler villainy of Alison Pill as a creepy schoolteacher is much more effective.
It’s baffling to me that this film is being positioned as an art house release. It stars the lead actor from the biggest movie of the year so far, and is full of action and excitement that’s very accessible. It is a hard R movie, but so was The Matrix, and that was a big hit. Ultimately, the Weinsteins’ struggle with the film ignited a cult of support, but they should have had the confidence to give it a wide release and let Snowpiercer get the kind of blockbuster support it deserves. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s by far the best film I’ve seen this summer.Powered by Sidelines