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'Snowpiercer': Both thoughtful allegory and satisfying summer action flick

Snowpiercer

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"Snowpiercer" brings us a thrilling summer sci-fi action flick on which one could easily teach a course or three. And it brings us time for a few things I now insist upon so vehemently that if delivered, I'd eat a gelatinous black protein bar. I'm serious.

Chris Evans considers doors both open and closed to him.
RADiUS-TWC

Here we find humanity – or rather, what remains of it – trapped in a microcosm of its former self: a train perpetually circling the earth after a bungled attempt to cool the planet accidentally freezes it solid. And as with its former self, the population inside is sorted into a class system, in which the folks in the tail end are mad as hell, and they’re not gonna take it anymore. Thus begins the latest of several attempts to break past the locked doors of their own cars, pushing ever forward until they can reach the engine and achieve just circumstances.

Of course those at the front take umbrage with this…

Led by director Bong Joon Ho (Joon-ho Bong in his native tongue, if you look him up on IMDb), "Snowpiercer"’s powerful cast enjoys excellent chemistry both with their characters and with each other. Led by Chris Evans (here able to display a bit of his considerable dramatic talent, see "Puncture" for the full glory), Joon Ho hand-picked much of it, including changing the gender of one character in order to cast Tilda Swinton.

Swinton delivers another customarily marvelous performance (and Qualifying Role) as unctuous official Mason, who spouts the propaganda of the privileged as she unleashes a beatdown upon those with the impertinence to argue it. Though Swinton sports some cosmetic effects that adjust her nose and teeth (her own idea), the adjustments support rather than transform, allowing her to fully actualize a ghoulish representation of the system Mason represents in a kind of living Dorian Gray’s painting.

An allegory for our planet perpetually circling the sun, "Snowpiercer" explores concepts of equity, social justice, Darwinism, and evil cloaking itself either as helpless capitulation to some ineffable, naturally-imposed order or as an unfortunate yet necessary enforcer for the greater good (whichever argument serves the moment to calm those who would rebel). Listening to the rhetoric spewing from the “sacred engine,” it even hints on more than one occasion that the train’s hierarchy was, in fact, prearranged with chilling deliberation. Many parallels may be drawn to today’s world suggesting that its “food chain” among species is actually a “privilege chain” among levels of power, but as tantalizing as they are, they are subjects for another day.

For today, we enjoy a sensational action flick sporting all the excitement, suspense, and surprise one can ask of one’s 4th of July entertainment.

And on that happy note, "Snowpiercer" brings with it three necessaries the actualization of which I would happily eat one of those nasty protein bars that sustain the people at the tail end.

First, we really need to see more from Steve Park. This guy is a dazzling 3Roller in the making, and has not hit bona fide status only for dearth of opportunity. Coen Brothers fans in particular will recognize him as "Fargo"’s Mike Yanagita, who desperately sought to kindle a romantic spark with Marge, and as Clive’s father in "A Serious Man", who told Larry to “accept the mystery” of his extortion attempts. Here we see him essentially in cameo as one of the security officers, and while I fully understand Joon Ho’s decision in casting regular collaborator Song Kang Ho (Kang-ho Song) in a major role, I so wish they’d given Park a shot at it (not because it required an adult male of Asian ethnicity per se, but because he could have handled it). Even seeing him in the [so-called] smaller role of Andrew, one of the tail end residents, would have been welcome (no offense to the very fine Ewan Bremner); this missed opportunity is the only problem I have with the production.

Second, we really need "Runaway Train" to be back in full circulation. As in, widely and readily available via DVD, Blu-Ray, and streaming across all channels, and making the regular rounds on Encore, et al. There’s been some forward motion on this in the past year or two, but it’s utterly insufficient. Written by Akira Kurosawa, this thoughtful superthriller garnered Academy Award nominations for editor Henry Richardson and actors Jon Voight and Eric Roberts, and sports Qualifying Roles from Voight and Rebecca DeMornay (surprise!). Though people routinely dismiss the plot as boring (escaped prisoners on a, well, runaway train), they invariably return with a wide-eyed, “Wow. Thanks!”

Third, it really is time to give us "This Perfect Day" (finally available again via Kindle). An elegant trifecta with "Snowpiercer" and "The Matrix", this story by Ira Levin chills to the bone here in 2014; published in 1970, much of life as depicted in this utopian/dystopian (depends on whom you ask) society is coming to pass. Though others of Levin’s novels were successfully adapted ("Rosemary’s Baby", "The Boys from Brazil", and "The Stepford Wives"), "This Perfect Day" required visual effects nonexistent in their heyday (such as a human race genetically unified into a single mocha-colored, largely androgynous form), but that day is over. Its time has come. And I’ll eat a second bar if I’m allowed to cast it.

For now, "Snowpiercer" delights on its own, destined for sci-fi classic status.

And so it is.

Story: When Earth is plunged into a new ice age, a handful of survivors lives aboard a glorious, perpetually-moving train, where those kept in squalor in the back are mad as hell, and they're not going to take it anymore.

Genre: Action/adventure, sci-fi

Starring: Chris Evans, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Ed Harris, Song Kang Ho (Kang-ho Song), Ko Asung (Ah-sung Ko), Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, Alison Pill, Vlad Ivanov, Steve Park

Directed by: Bong Joon Ho (Joon-ho Bong)

MPAA: R

Running time: 126 minutes

Houston release date: July 2, 2014 at the AMC Studio 30

Tickets: Check IMDb.com or your local listings

Screened June 26th 2014 at the Edwards Marq*E theater in Houston TX