PLOT: In the not-too-distant future, the last survivors of a cataclysmic new ice age ride a powerful locomotive known as the Snowpiercer. While the rich and powerful enjoy luxurious lives at the head of the train, the poor and bedraggled toward the rear plan a game-changing revolution.
REVIEW: If this movie doesn't kick butt at the box office, I give up. Not that a film's monetary showing is an indicator of its quality, but all the people whining about craving original genre fare at the movies had better put their money where their mouth is this time, because SNOWPIERCER is the goods. Exciting, clever, suspenseful and intelligent, it's the best adrenaline rush in theaters this summer - and we've actually been having a decent summer.
What makes the film so satisfying is that it's a perfect combination of high-concept sci-fi and thoughtful independent foreign film. The film's director, Bong Joon-ho, has toiled these waters before with THE HOST, which was part large-scale monster flick and part ingenious, subversive satire. With SNOWPIERCER, which was filmed in English, obviously not Bong's native language but you'd never know it, he crafts an almost non-stop series of engaging, edge-of-your-seat set-pieces and punctuates them with notes of somber reflection and Orwellian dread. It's the kind of movie where you'd be tempted to play the "If they made this in Hollywood…" game ("If they made this in Hollywood they'd never allow that scene to get through.") if your attention weren't so completely spoken for by the movie's ceaseless energy and palpable soul.
Many years from now, the Earth has become a frozen wasteland, and humanity's last remnants ride the titular locomotive in a microcosm of class warfare. In the back of the train, the lower classes are soot-covered and starving, forced to toil helplessly as the powers-the-be in the front of the never-stopping train control their every move with threats of violence or kidnapping their children. When we find them, this scraggly bunch has had just about enough, and look to Curtis (Chris Evans) and Gilliam (John Hurt) to lead an uprising. Along for the ride are Curtis' ride-hand man Edgar (Jamie Bell) and Tanya (Octavia Spencer), the latter of which has just had her son taken away by the upper-class, though where the children go is unknown.
Standing in the way of the revolution are various forces; Mason (an absolutely amazing Tilda Swinton) is the smug, scolding Number Two for the unseen Wilford, the mysterious man at the very front of the train who runs the vehicle and the whole show. There are also various gun-toting henchmen and guards to get through, so not only will ingenuity need to be dispatched on the part of the rebels, but a show of force as well. This means several elaborate action sequences as our protagonists attempt to battle their way through extremely claustrophobic confines in order to take the train's engine.
Just wow to all of this. From the very beginning, SNOWPIERCER establishes itself as a visual feast as well as a tale layered with allegorical references; more than that, it's a universal story of the beaten masses taking a stand which will resonate with just about everyone. These are not exactly the most groundbreaking of ideas, but that's what make them stick home with ease. Adapted from the French comic " Le Transperceneige" by Bong and American playwright Kelly Masterson, the movie's stunning visuals and brilliant direction never force aside its strong ideals.
That said, Bong has compiled a top-notch crew to ensure every single frame of SNOWPIERCER is spilling over with incredible detail, from the Terry Gilliam-esque rear - with its various gloomy complexities and quirky characters - to the front, with train cars that go from looking like a twisted Walt Disney nightmare to a Kubrickian vision of antiseptic wealth. It often feels exciting and unnerving to enter each new car, as the landscape continually changes and threats come in all shapes and sizes. Production designer Ondrej Nekvasil and costume designer Catherine George have done outstanding work, and then some, while cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong seemingly captures every last bit of it.
Bong has assembled as perfect an ensemble as one could ask for. Evans further establishes himself as not only a powerful leading man, but an actor capable of deeper, more resonant moments. (He has an emotional monologue toward the end of the film and absolutely nails it.) Song Kang-ho, so great in THE HOST, is equally terrific here as a wily, grumpy security officer who grudgingly joins the uprising, as long as he's gifted with a powerful, mind-altering drug. Ko Ah-sung plays his daughter, also addicted to the dangerous hallucinogen, and her bright, hopeful visage is one of the movie's few gifts of sweetness in all the gloom. But it's Swinton who runs away with every single scene she's in, her over-the-top accent and cartoon-villain wardrobe consistently fascinating and grotesque. I'm not joking when I say The Weinstein Company should thoroughly consider pushing her for a Best Supporting Actress nomination, so vivid and weird is her performance.
If the movie has a fault, it's in its finale, which stops the previously undisturbed momentum of the journey and settles down for too much talking. I think that on a second viewing this won't be as troubling, but it admittedly stands in the way of SNOWPIERCER achieving total perfection. Nevertheless, it's a magnificent experience, one that will surely litter several Top Ten lists at year's end - mine included. So go see this in the theater, dammit!
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