There is a sequence midway through Snowpiercer that perfectly articulates what makes Korean writer/director Bong Joon-ho among the most dynamic filmmakers currently working. Protagonist Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) and his ragtag band of rebels have just entered a train compartment where they are ambushed by a legion of men armed with axes. Everett bravely (or foolishly, depending on your perspective) leads the charge and the two armies engage in a no-holds-barred, slow motion-heavy action set piece. Metal clashes against metal, and characters slash through their opponents as if their bodies were made of butter. It’s gory, imaginative, horrifying, beautiful, visceral and utterly glorious. As a whole, Snowpiercer may not always reach such a level, but it certainly does its darndest.
In the past, Bong has demonstrated a heavy predilection towards working within various genres, whether it be the detective thriller (Memories of Murder, Mother) or the monster movie (The Host) only to infuse the narrative with a specificity and emotional core that subverts all the obvious plot points, resulting in a story that haunts you for days after.
Adapted from a French graphic novel by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer is a sci-fi thriller set in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world. Nearly two decades prior, in an ill-advised attempt to halt global warning, the government inundated the atmosphere with an experimental chemical that left our planet a barren, ice-covered wasteland. Now, the last of humanity resides on “Snowpiercer,” a vast train powered via a perpetual-motion engine. Needless to say, this scenario hasn’t exactly brought out the best of humanity. Whereas the residents of the front portion of the train live in exuberant privilege, the inhabitants of the tail section wallow in abject poverty, nourished solely by disgusting food bars that are traded like currency.
As the film opens, Everett and his neighbors are looking to finally break away from the bitter subjugation and confront Wilford, the train’s inventor, leader and de facto God figure. With nearly the entirety of the tail population supporting him, including close friend Edgar (Jamie Bell) and mentor Gillam (John Hurt), Everett coordinates all the tail’s resources in an attempt to make their way toward the front of the train. Along the way, he recruits Namgoong Minsu (Bong regular Song Kang-ho), a master technician with the ability to open each compartment door, and Yona (Go Ah-sung), a young girl with clairvoyant tendencies.
Initially, the early scenes of the movie feel like a bit of a slog. There’s a lot of necessary world building at play, but, coupled with the setting’s close confines as well as frequent use of shaky, handheld camerawork, it makes for an experience that’s perhaps a bit too claustrophobic and uneasy.
Once Everett’s group really starts to move up the proverbial food chain is when the film really goes in an intriguing direction. As the team ventures deeper and deeper into the belly of the train, Bong relishes in giving each compartment its own unique visual stamp. There’s a greenhouse section, an aquarium section, a rave/club section and—in one of the film’s strangest set ups—a bright and colorful schoolhouse section ruled over by a perky and very pregnant elementary school teacher (Alison Pill). With each new area, one gets the sense they’ve entered a completely different film.
Bong’s English language debut comes more than a year after his Korean contemporaries Park Chan-wook and Kim Jee-woon each attempted to make a dent in the U.S. market. Whereas Park’s independently financed thriller Stoker was a beautiful exercise in atmosphere saddled with a dicey script and Kim’s The Last Stand proved to be little more than an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle with only flashes of the director’s style, Snowpiercer proves to be the most consistent of the bunch. By setting the film in what effectively is a microcosm of society in all its complexity and strangeness, Bong and writer Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) effectively justify the ever-changing tone and look of the characters’ Heart of Darkness-type journey. It’s, in a way, uneven by design.
Besides the impressive visuals, the film makes relatively solid use of its impressive cast. Chris Evans again proves, as he did in Sunshine and the little seen Puncture, that he’s capable of much more depth than what his blockbuster-heavy career would suggest. Equally compelling is Song and Go, both making their big English-language debut alongside Bong.
The obvious show stealer, however, is Tilda Swinton’s surreal performance as Minister Mason, an androgynous, buffoonish bureaucrat. Acting as the initial hint of tonal disparity between the various train compartments, Mason is, in direct contrast with the grimy tail inhabitants, an over-the-top anime character in human flesh. Disguised under grotesque teeth, coke-bottle glasses and absurd, untraceable accent, Swinton is going all out. Some will love her performance and some will hate it, but—in either case—there’s no way you’ll forget her.
If Snowpiercer falters towards the final act, it’s mostly due to the restraints of its own genre conventions. By the time Everett finally gets to his destination, the ensuing face-off feels like the kind of cerebral back-and-forth that we’ve seen play out in dozens of other similarly themed sci-fi stories. The ultimate resolution remains powerful in its own way, but one can’t quite shake the whiff of familiarity.
Bleak and brutal, Snowpiercer may not quite reach the heights of Bong’s Korean output, but it does act as a more than successful demonstration of what he can bring to the table as a director. Bong may very well be playing a song that we’ve all heard before, but he does it with such gusto and dexterous skill you can’t help but be caught up the flurry.
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Writer: Bong Joon-ho, Kelly Masterson (screenplay); Bong Joon-ho (screen story); Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, Jean-Marc Rochette (graphic novel)
Starring: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Song Kang-ho, Jamie Bell
Release Date: June 27, 2014