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Advance movie review: 'Snowpiercer' is the other Chris Evans movie of 2014

Snowpiercer

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"SNOWPIERCER"-- 2 STARS

Director Dong Joon-ho talks about the film.
Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Chris Evans, thanks to the runaway success of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," is a hot commodity right now. Despite his recently revealed wishes to retire from acting and focus on directing at the end of his Marvel Films contract, Chris has elevated himself to the point where his name can now likely headline and open movies on its own. His star level isn't on par with fellow "Avenger" Robert Downey, Jr. in this regard where everything he touches is a blockbuster, but Chris has finally ascended to this point and, at age 32, is 17 years younger than RDJ.

Since he's never been a #1 starter, so to speak, we forget that Chris Evans has been steadily acting since his lead debut of 2001's "Not Another Teen Movie." He's no fresh face on the scene, even if it feels like that. What even more people forget is that he's given as much, if not more, effort to smaller and independent acting roles as he has to playing superheroes. Dig deeper and you will see his resume is filled with keen little ensemble parts in films like Danny Boyle's "Sunshine," "London," Griffin Dunne's "Fierce People," "Puncture," and last year's "The Iceman." When necessary, Chris Evans has the chops to hide in a good role and not just win with abs and a great smile.

Following another one of his indie appearances, Evans stars in the upcoming new film "Snowpiercer." Slated for a limited U.S. release this June, the film is a South Korean production that was completed and released overseas last year to little hoopla. However, thanks to buzz of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," this borderline obscure film receives new life as a small studio's attempt to cash in on the new stock value of its star. Very likely, "Snowpiercer" is going to get the label of the "other Chris Evans movie" this year. For fans expecting his superhero act, they are going to be significantly disappointed. Those that like an actor challenging himself to do something different, will find a few bright spots in "Snowpiercer" to hang their hat on. It's still a tough sell for either audience.

What makes "Snowpiercer" a tough sell is its daring, yet isolating post-apocalyptic premise. It's pretty out there, which can be a good thing and a bad thing. Directed by promising South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho and adapted from the 1982 French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige” by Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson ("Before the Devil Knows Your Dead"), the film entirely takes place on a massive supertrain in the year 2031. In this future, a world scientific experiment to correct global warming 18 years ago went horribly wrong by setting off a sudden and severe new Ice Age that killed all surface life on Earth.

Seeing this disaster coming, a mostly unseen industrialist named Wilford was able to develop a locomotive run on perpetual motion that travels on a global track. He gathered about 1,000 survivors for the train and installed a rigid class system of the decadent elite in the front and the undesirables in the tail end. Together, yet divided over those 18 years, they survive and stay on the move. The rich live it up, while the poor are oppressed by security forces and fed manufactured food living in squalor.

Bong Joon-ho has assembled an impressive cast to flesh out this odd little survival journey and does so outside of the Hollywood studio system for, in essence, a no-name film. That makes "Snowpiercer" art house pretending to be a blockbuster. Evans plays Curtis, a reluctant leader of the poor who plots to move forward on the train to break the elite's control. The right-hand Robin to his Batman is Jamie Bell's Edgar, a fiery sidekick who acts impulsively rather than planning. Both are inspired and motivated by the soothsayer elder of the tail section, Gilliam, played by two-time Oscar nominee John Hurt.

The last straw that sets off the ensuing rebellion occurs when two children, separately belonging to "Pearl Harbor" supporting actor Ewen Bremmer and recent "The Help" Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, are taken from the tail by the powers-that-be. Curtis and the gang gather forces and the assistance of a jailed train engineer (Korean superstar Song Kang-ho) and begin to push forward to retrieve the taken kids. Pitted against them are the international rainbow of suits, killers, and thugs led by Wilford's mouthpiece Mason, played with all built-in weirdness possible by Academy Award winner Tilda Swinton.

With each conquered train car, the exploration, mystery, and revelation of "Snowpiercer" grows. I know the word "odd" keeps coming up, but so much about this film is precariously strange to the point of implausibility. The notion that the only surviving element of human existence inhabits a very random bullet train in the near future is incredibly specific and hugely ambitious. The clear purpose was to use this setting as a microcosm of class warfare and impending societal collapse. It's very high concept and one that might aim too high. "Snowpiercer," for plenty, will be a little too thick and difficult to embrace as a setting and social platform.

Without spoiling what happens (though, there is one big name from the credits and poster that I am omitting on purpose), there is indeed a puppeteer of sorts in the form of Wilford himself that controls this moving carnival eco-caste-system. He contains the answers to the big ideas of "what" and "why" towards this microcosm's setting and purpose. It all builds to him, but the payoff is too light and too many question marks remain.

Despite the noteworthy collection of talent, I can't say anyone gives a decent performance outside of Chris Evans and Song Kang-ho. Chris was dealt the overplayed and thankless role of a "what'll it be"-style, I'm-not-a-leader-but-really-am leader, but he squeezes out enough nobility to root for his character. In working in his element and country, Kang-ho resonates some as the linchpin to move the action, but even he feels nameless and lost in the shuffle at times. Everyone else is handled really poorly.

Strangeness, inside and out, is par for the course for Tilda Swinton, but her performance is too over the top in this bleak landscape next to everyone else. Allison Pill of "The Newsroom" gets a throw-in zany part that goes down the same way. Octavia Spencer isn't given much of consequence. Thankfully, Ewen Bremmer isn't asked to add to his vitae of speech impediments, but still gets little to do but be wide-eyed and crazy. To randomly quote "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," Jamie Bell's character is full of "piss and wind" with a fate you can see coming a mile away. He has played this brash-sidekick-that-doesn't-listen too many predictable times. For some reason, despite being a richly layered actor, it feels like John Hurt has been playing the same prophetic, bearded-and-dirty mentor character for nearly two decades. His part should matter more, but it doesn't. Finally, that unnamed actor (you'll know him when you see him) playing the endgame master is a bit of quiet wisp when he should hit harder, and even he has now played this kind of omnipotent part too many times, as well.

There are certainly some lofty and perplexing topics in play that either elevate or separate, depending on your liking, "Snowpiercer" from being a complete esoteric odyssey or something special and groundbreaking for science fiction. As you will read in the lesson, this movie has something to say. For me, though, too many ideas are muddled together and seem too similar to pieces from "Children of Men," "In Time," "District 9," "Dark City," "The Matrix" series, and, most notably, last summer's "Elysium." The acting doesn't do it any favors either.

Stylistically, "Snowpiercer" wins some points. This is a unique English-language expression of Joon-ho's striking South Korean flavor and the film has the ability to dazzle when you're not scratching your head or asking questions. The ever-shifting conflict and forward trajectory feels like a video game with clear distinctions, transitions, and levels of threat for Curtis and his rebels. The claustrophobic setting makes for some nice battles of gun play and hand-to-hand fighting with clever logistical challenges. There is some fun camera work from Hong Kyung-pyo and a decent musical score from Marco Beltrami. In the end, I think the vague weirdness and bad performances outweigh the the film's ambitious singularity, style points, and heady fiction. I'll go back to saying it's a tough sell.

LESSON #1: CLASS WARFARE DURING SOCIETAL COLLAPSE-- As is often seen when real disasters or down times occur, the rich people with means tend to be able to cushion and absorb such blows while those not as well off suffer greatly. There is natural envy, jealousy, and dismissal there for both sides. When the wrong kind of leadership is in place, this kind of class warfare seen in the small setting of "Snowpiercer" can be forced and governed more than circumstantial. More on this in Lesson #2.

LESSON #2: THE RICH'S ILLUSIONS OF JUSTICE AND MERCY-- The elite class on the train have grown accustomed to their decadence and look entirely down on the poor with ignorance and disdain. More so, they obliviously carry a smug point of perceived pride that they are the ones sacrificing, giving, and supporting those less fortunate by allowing them the chance, place, and resources they have, no matter how substandard or fair they are. They call it justice and mercy, but those ideals are illusions to what is really occurring, which is indoctrination and ruling by fear.

LESSON #3: THE NOTION OF EVERYONE HAVING A PREORDAINED PLACE IN A GIVEN SYSTEM-- Those classes and mindsets from the first two lessons are deeply rooted in this abbreviated caste system by the prevailing notion of this lesson. The vanity exists that the poor have their proper and destined place in this survival system. They are oppressed so much that too many of them actually believe that and live a defeated life. The brave and the civilized rise against that idea that everyone's place is determined and unchangeable.