One of the weirdest and most ambitious movies I’ve seen this year, Snowpiercer is a big, barreling mish-mash of interesting ideas. It’s got a high-concept science fiction premise; Earth has frozen over and all that is left of humanity is stuck aboard an always-in-motion train, but that’s just the set up. Really, the train setting is simply the backdrop for a story that serves as both straight forward action pic and thoughtful allegory.
From Korean director Joon-ho Bong, the movie follows Chris Evans as a scraggly peasant relegated to poverty at the very back of the train. He leads a violent rebellion with the help of a talented supporting cast which includes Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt and Korean actors Kang-ho Song and Ko A-sung. Their goal is to reach the very front of the train, where the conductor/dictator resides. Standing in their way are lots and lots of guards and one very creepy Tilda Swinton, who completely steals the movie with her hilariously bizarre and utterly committed performance.
The movie is remarkable for being a modern action movie that does not rely predominately on special effects. This was probably due to lack of a budget, demonstrated by the fairly poor quality of the special effects in the rare instances where they’re employed. But the movie doesn’t need special effects. The action is brutal, visceral, and well-choreographed in a refreshingly old-fashioned sense. These scenes are also varied enough that you never know exactly what’ll happen next. You just know it’ll always look and feel badass.
The main visual appeal doesn’t come from the constant ballet of death, but from the amazing set designs. Since nobody can leave the train without freezing to death, there are train cars for absolutely everything from living quarters to restaurants to spas…even drug dens. Each of these cramped compartments look completely different and feel kind of like they were created by a darker, alternate universe version of Wes Anderson. As the cast battles their way from the dingy back cart up to the front, their is a real sense of visual progression. This tale uniquely lends itself to film.
Bong has invested in making a film that feels international in every sense. A futuristic device that instantly translates different languages is a clever way of circumventing the problems with having a bilingual cast, while simultaneously commenting on that disconnect. The film’s social commentary is broad enough to apply to pretty much any culture.
It’s influences are also a blend of East and West: the science fiction elements are reminiscent of Terry Gilliam and some of the tensest moments — like when Swinton tortures a peasant by exposing his arm to the deadly outside air — channel Tarantino in the best ways. Meanwhile, the brutal violence and dark third-act plot twist feels very similar to fellow Korean film Oldboy (though a little rougher around the edges), while the odd punctuations of slapstick comedy are very much in line with Bong’s previous movies.
I’m not quite sure if these strange diversions into goofy humor are a cultural difference or not, but to me it felt off. The jarring tonal shifts are very different compared to pretty much any action or science fiction movie made in the West. In its oddest moments, like whenever Tilda Swinton shows up or when a schoolteacher played by Allison Pill sings cheerfully to her young students about death, I was completely taken out of the experience. The world Bong has crafted is never fully believable, but I did find myself buying into almost, even the unconvincing effects. But that comedy was just not working for me at all.
it’s usually pretty obvious and off-putting when American actors read dialogue clearly written by Asian actors. It’s a problem I had last year with Park Chan-wook’s Stoker, and it’s no different here. While Tilda Swinton does her own thing and completely owns it, the other actors’ dialogue often feels awkward, stilted. For all the attempts Bong makes at closing the culture gap, the disconnect between cast and director is still felt.
The movie deals with a lot of big themes: Order vs. chaos, fate, our impact on the environment, questioning the social order and cross-cultural cooperation. The third act is heavy with philosophy, but it is set up well enough that it comes across with grace. It’s an interesting accomplishment that the film gives audiences both mindless violence and thought-provoking social commentary, but it’s an even bigger feat to do it so convincingly. I’m sure many will dislike the film’s ending, but nobody can accuse it of not being ambitious enough.
In a summer season full of great science fiction in the form of Edge of Tomorrow and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (I’d even include X-Men: Days of Future Past), Snowpiercer’s eccentricities help it stand out. It may have some bumpy spots, but the train is certainly worth boarding.
Score: 4 out of 5