Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Bong Joon-Ho
Stars: Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, Song Kang-ho, Ewen Bremner, Ah-sung Ko, Alison Pill, Luke Pasqualino, Vlad Ivanov, Adrian Haskovic, Emma Levie.
Cult Korean director Bong Joon Ho (the creature feature The Host, the more subtle Hitchcock like thriller Mother, etc) gives us his most ambitious film to date with this allegorical, dystopian sci-fi action thriller set in the not too distant future. Snowpiercer is also his biggest budget film to date, and he stretches the $40million far. This is also his first English language film, and he has assembled a great cast that includes Captain America himself Chris Evans, Jamie Bell (Billy Elliott, etc), John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, and Ed Harris, which should appeal to a broader audience. The film is based on a 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, written by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Richette, which Ho discovered in a bookshop in 2004. He was immediately captivated by its themes and ambitious scope. He has cowritten the film with American screenwriter Kelly Masterson (Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, etc).
The film is set 18 years in the future. An attempt by scientists to control the effects of global warming by spreading chemicals in the air has backfired, producing a new ice age. Humanity has been all but wiped out, and cities lay waste under a cover of ice. The remnants of civilization live aboard a massive train that continually circles the earth on a railway track. The train is like a gigantic Ark, but there exists a closely ordered hierarchical system to maintain order. There is a strictly regimented class system at work on the train, which is a microcosm of society with all its flaws and failings. There is routine and order, which is ruthlessly enforced by the grotesque and imperious Mason (Tilda Swinton, who seems to be channeling Margaret Thatcher), as she reminds people of their place in the train.
The train is the brainchild of the enigmatic engineer and designer Wilton (Ed Harris), a seemingly benevolent dictator who rides in the front carriage but is rarely seen. In the front carriages ride the rich, the powerful, while the downtrodden are contained in the rear carriage where they live in cramped and squalid conditions and survive by eating protein bars. Every now and again, heavily armed soldiers visit the carriage to abduct young children for unknown purposes.
But the natives are growing restless, and led by Curtis (Chris Evans) they plan an assault and make their way towards the front of the train, fighting against overwhelming odds. Curtis enlists the aid of Namgoong (Song Kang-ho, a regular in Ho’s films), a locksmith who apparently designed the secure system of locked doors that protect each carriage. But Namgoong is addicted to a drug known as Kronole. His 17 year old daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko, from The Host, etc) has never known life outside of the confines of the train.
There are some quite bloody and hectic battle scenes, directed with energy and masculine style by Ho. Steve M Cho’s kinetic editing propels the narrative forward, and cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo uses the claustrophobic settings to good effect. He has shot many of the scenes in muted colours that heighten the oppressive mood.
One of the standout scenes is a bloody confrontation as Curtis and his men battle men armed with axes in pitch blackness, a brutal scene that echoes the extended hammer fight from cult Korean film Old Boy. The film at times resembles a video game, as each carriage offers up a different challenge and level of danger. We wonder what the next carriage will bring. And each carriage has its own distinctive characteristic and colour scheme – there is a nightclub, and there is even a classroom where the teacher (Alison Pill) indoctrinates her charges with a dangerous fascist outlook.
Given the nature of the film though there is precious little character development, and the bleak and depressing world they inhabit doesn’t change much. Swinton effortlessly steals her scenes here with her oversized teeth and sardonic lines, and she is the best thing here. Evans is almost unrecognisable but he has a strong physical presence. John Hurt also registers strongly as the wise but ailing Gilliam, a veteran of the train who acts as a mentor to Curtis.
A healthy suspension of disbelief is required to go along with the bizarre central premise and the nightmarish vision of this violent apocalyptic world, and not everyone in the audience will be willing to do so. Those who make the effort though will be rewarded with one of the better sci-fi action thrillers of the year!