Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Language and Drug Content
Directed by: Bong Joon-Ho
Written by: Bong Joon-Ho & Kelly Masterson
(based on the graphic novel SNOWPIERCER by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand & Jean-Marc Rochette)
Starring: Chris Evans, Song Kang-Ho, Go Ah-Sung, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris & Alison Pill
Though it’s the adaptation of the 1982 French graphic novel, most people will compare SNOWPIERCER to the recent Sci-Fi blockbuster ELYSIUM. The film is just as subtle in its social commentary of class warfare taken to a violent extreme and is also set in an post-apocalyptic wasteland where the rich are large and in charge. I described ELYSIUM as a film that could easily have starred Arnold Schwarzenegger in his heyday, but the same cannot be said of SNOWPIERCER. This is a more confident, far more developed, infinitely more creative and an all around better film on every conceivable level. Bong Joon-Ho’s English-language debut is not without some noticeable flaws, but this is one Science Fiction story that will linger in my mind for some time to come and practically demands repeat viewings from the entertainment value alone.
Eighteen years in the future, a second ice age has set in and life on Earth is extinct. That is except for the lucky passengers of the “rattling ark.” An engineering genius named Wilford constructed a massive train, powered by an eternal engine, that travels across the entire world. The train is a self-contained ecosystem that sustains human life with no expiration date. Of course, with all of these people crammed aboard from various walks of life, a natural class system is adopted. The rich live in the front cars and enjoy a glamorous lifestyle. The poor are crowded together in the tail of train, living in horrible conditions, and dying young. A few small revolutions have already taken place and failed. Curtis is a man stuck at the back of the train with a plan for a successful rebellion against the powerful dictating the train. Everything is intricately set into motion for this new revolution to take place. Of course, the elite will fight against these lower class in order to keep their wealthy status intact. Needless to say that conflicts ensue and a group of “tail hicks” traveling to the engine room at the front of the train is no easy task.
SNOWPIERCER is helmed by visionary Korean director Bong Joon-Ho (his other work including such films as monster movie THE HOST and the critically acclaimed mystery MOTHER). Some problems can be seen early on in the frozen landscape setting looking a bit iffy in a crucial moment and one action scene indulging in incoherent shaky camera work. Luckily, these problems don’t rear their ugly heads again. The production design on every set is very well done and sucks you into the dire world that these characters inhabit. Every car is set apart from the previous one and I felt like I was on board making my way across the entire train as lives were lost with each step of the way. This is an intense film to say the least.
Occasionally, there are a few missteps later on. Some attempts at humor feel forced and there is a minor nagging detail that was far-fetched (even given the world this movie takes place in). The villains also come off as ridiculously evil. It’s almost cartoonish how wicked they get and it worked in the favor of me hating them, because I was rooting for certain antagonists to die in the most painful way imaginable. Every actor delivers a strong performance with the exception of Tilda Swinton. She plays one of the more notable villains and I hated her with every fiber of my being, but she was going far over-the-top. Even Jodie Foster’s character in the aforementioned ELYSIUM with all of her scenery-chewing was subtle compared to Swinton’s ridiculous portrayal of an already despicable character.
Given those notable faults, there are certain scenes in SNOWPIERCER that are nothing short of brilliant. One monologue that Chris Evans gives reminded me of the same emotional weight that Quint’s speech had in JAWS. Another scene within a classroom contained a lot of dark humor that worked wonders. One extended fight/chase/fight sequence spanning several train cars between a calm baddie and the group was awesome. With every silly moment that doesn’t quite work, there are five more well executed scenes that make up for it. It’s not that the viewer won’t notice a few nitpicky things, but everything else is so gripping you probably won’t be too bothered by it. Some plot revelations near the end are ingenious and to say anything more on them would be criminal.
SNOWPIERCER is far from a masterpiece or a new classic, but it’s bursting with tension and awesome level of well-realized creativity. The pacing never lags and I have no clue as to why the Weinsteins wanted to trim 20 minutes out of the final cut. Director Joon-Ho doesn’t go overly crazy in the bloodshed department, but doesn’t shy way from graphic violence that is essential to the story being told. The social commentary is as subtle as ELYSIUM, but the story and execution could not be more different. There are a few minor bumps, but this is a thoroughly enjoyable rollercoaster ride of a movie!