I'm the first to admit that when movies take us to a dystopian near future where humanity is struggling to survive, I tend to roll my eyes a little as it has been done before. So when something visually innovative and interesting comes along in this genre comes around it is always a pleasant surprise. "Snowpiercer" is the English language debut from a Korean cinematic auteur who manages to keep the bleak storytelling tone that made him famous while bringing some Hollywood spectacle to the proceedings.
Global warming is no longer a myth and the planet has been frozen to the core for the past 17 years, with the remaining survivors locked into a speeding train named the Snowpiercer as humanity clings to its last bit of hope with the people surviving inside its steel walls. With the affluent and powerful living in the front of the car, the tail section is a slum and a ghetto where people are cold, hungry and only have their wits and their cunning in order to keep them alive. For 17 trips around this track, this has been the status quo that has remained, but there is a revolution brewing and a charismatic young leader (Chris Evans) spear heads a revolution to move his people to the front of the train, but along the way he learns more about the mysterious creator at the head of the train and the place that he has called home for half of his entire life and wonders if there will ever be a world off of that train that they can return to.
Rarely do geo-politics, environmental issues and straight up action go hand in hand, but with his English language debut, writer/director Bong Joon-Ho crafts a unique, dystopian world that ropes us in with visuals that are inspired with shades of Gilliam, Marker and Tartovsky while keeping mainstream audiences engaged with a strong narrative and some damn good action sequences.
Based on a French graphic novel and in development for years with principle photography having finished two years ago, Bong Joon-Ho quite literally puts every single dollar that he has access to on to the big screen. It is truly a design master piece with the kind of attention to detail that puts some of the most articulate artists to shame. Every single piece of the frame serves a clear cut and absolute purpose driving forward how bleak this world is. Korean filmmakers are known and even revered for their dark storytelling and even though there was much fighting, to his credit Bong Joon-Ho stood his ground. Rather than make it black and white or good and bad, it was like sepia or grey and then lavish color in the very next frame. He wraps us up in this crazy world and never lets us go as we are taken on a ride that is visually assaulting and vital to the crux of the narrative that has some very solid performances that drive home the genuine darkness and desperation in this world that he has created on this train going nowhere at break neck speeds.
Chris Evans who shot this post Avengers is at ease in the role of a reluctant hero and he plays it all quite well as he tries to stand up for his friends who simply want a better life, only to be thrust into a grander role that he may necessarily not have wanted. The rest of the supporting roles are all small, but terribly key as John Hurt plays the sage veteran voice in the back of the train, Jamie Bell fits the role of young and eager sidekick with no life experience to a tee while the likes of Octavia Spencer and Ewen Bremmer circle around him. The great Song Kang-ho is superb as the mysterious Namgoong Minsoo that Chris Evans and his revolt have to break out of prison in order to make their way to the front of the train and serves as a moral balance and ambiguity as both sides reek unspeakable violence on each other. At the front of the car, the always brilliant Tilda Swinton is nearly unrecognizable as administrator Mason while Alison Pill and Vlad Ivanov do her bidding as they fight up towards Ed Harris and the front of the car who does delusional with the best of them.
Ultimately, "Snowpiercer" isn't going to be the kind of film that will be for everyone as it is a terribly dark look at the raw nature of humanity. However rarely, do action films manage to sustain such a unique balance of action, social/political issues and dark emotional tones while still being incredibly entertaining.
4 out of 5 stars.
"Snowpiercer" opens in Toronto, Montreal & Calgary this Friday and rolls out wide across the country in the coming weeks and is also available via VOD from all major providers.