Snowpiercer is Korean genius Bong Joon-Ho’s first English language feature - he directed Memories of Murder, The Host and Mother – and it is based on Jacques Lob’s graphic novel Le Transperceneige. Bong wrote the screenplay along with Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead), and the result is as spectacularly ambitious, thought provoking and entertaining a science fiction entry as Bong’s esteemed credentials promise.
The film is set in the year 2031, and the world is a frozen and uninhabitable. Seventeen years earlier measures were taken to stop global warming, but the experiment was a disaster, killing everything in the process. Those lucky enough to survive boarded the giant rattling ark called the Snowpiercer, a train that circumnavigates the globe over the course of exactly one year.
We are first introduced to those living in the back of the train, the lowest class. They sleep cramped together, their hygiene is appalling, their only source of food is a manufactured protein block distributed once per day, they are beaten and mistreated by the train’s guards and have been deprived everything that the upper class forward carriages consume in lavish excess. Amongst these tail-dwellers are Curtis (Chris Evans), Edgar (Jamie Bell), Gilliam (William Hurt) and Tanya (Octavia Spencer), and they are desperate to shake up the world order.
In order to take the train, they have to take the engine at the very front. Their mission seems impossible – synced locked doors that offer a tiny window to breach, soldiers wielding guns and…other weapons, and the fact that those at the head and the foot are part of a closed ecosystem and aren’t waiting around for Darwin. Along the way they introduce Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) and Yona (Go Ah-sung) to their party and have to deal with Mason (Tilda Swinton), a bizarre creature who works for the trains mysterious conductor Wilford. Every new door unveils dangerous new challenges and extraordinary discoveries.
Snowpiercer seems to have been around for a long time. It received a release in South Korea in August 2013, breaking box office records, and then France in October. When The Weinstein Company acquired the North American rights they requested that Bong cut 20 minutes from the film, a ridiculous request (as it turns out) that was refused. When it was announced to be part of the Sydney Film Festival Official Competition, I thought it had already been and gone. The reason why I mention this is because it screened to a festival audience with a great deal of expectation, and with the aforementioned US holdbacks it possessed baggage. It was extremely divisive, as a result.
It has been very lucky to receive a theatrical release here in Australia – though just the two screens in Sydney and Melbourne – but as a result of its positive critical reception and substantial buzz, the film has expanded to 150 screens in the U.S. Snowpiercer is essential viewing in a cinema environment. With Dawn of the Planet of the Apes also released this month, quality, intelligent and audacious sci-fi has rarely been in such abundance.
While the action-packed futuristic premise and the A-list cast suggest a ‘Blockbuster’, it doesn’t adhere to the blueprint at all. It is a brilliant but batty microcosm study of social and class structure and how chaos ensues without hierarchy and leadership. When the world is reduced to a chain of carriages, balance is imperative. Sometimes the order of things needs to be carefully controlled, and sometimes it needs a shake-up. With Curtis and co. we traverse the length of the train, shocked and appalled by what we see, cheering on these desperate people as they fight for a chance to experience things long forgotten. If you can embrace this and be willing to go along for the ride you can’t help but get swept up in it. It lives and thrives on its risky concept, and as outrageous as its logic is it remains true to it to the end.
This is Curtis’ story and Evans has created a character we wholeheartedly back through this gauntlet. The monologue-driven final act is extraordinary, fitting in perfectly with the personal, philosophical and political cogs at play. It is a Stalker-esque exploration of one man’s mission to change the way of the world, only to reflect on his life and question everything that motivated him to get there, and what he will say and do when he meets the man behind the last door.
The action sequences are astonishingly good, with the evolution of one in particular is unlike anything I have ever seen. The video-game-level structure offers up surprises behind every door and there are countless moments that will leave you in a state of disbelief. There are effective additions of humour and dramatic revelations that have significant impact. This is one of the best-directed films I have seen in a while; it simply wouldn’t have worked without Bong at the helm.
Some films defy easy analysis and offer an experience so wonderfully strange that you feel like what you take away has to be completely unique. I find that Snowpiercer is one of those rare cases. It is difficult to explain why I loved this film, but I am so happy it exists. It’s your loss if you miss it.
[rating=4] and a half
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.