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Snowpiercer | Review

Hell Frozen Over: Joon-Ho’s Dystopic Thrill Ride an Arresting Examination of Cold Humanity

Bong Joon-ho Snowpiercer PosterHis first feature film since 2009’s Mother, as well as his English language debut, Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, based on the French graphic novel series “Le Transperceneige,” has been hyped at fever pitch ever since storming the box office in his native South Korea last year. After a much publicized haggling between the director and the Weinstein’s’ wish to trim twenty minutes away for the American palette, it’s a glorious win for art over commerce with the release of the title as the director originally intended it. Not to mention it moves as slickly as the rattling train upon which its set, speeding through a running time that slightly curbs over two hours at a brilliant pace.

Simply, a post apocalyptic tale showcasing mankind’s innate need for degrading hierarchies even when facing extinction, the screenplay, written by Joon-Ho and Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows Your Dead) may be a bit ostentatious with its overtly charged messages pertaining to human nature, but these moments (along with a special effects blemish here and there) are easy to forgive. Joon-ho’s created a thrilling, engaging, and exciting dystopic nightmare. If you’re looking for a contemporary example of a once innovative sub-genre, look no further, for this recalls the heyday of adventurous spectacle in a sub-genre beaten to death by mainstream formulas.

Radio communications in the darkness of the opening credits relate mankind’s attempt to roll back the increasing threat of global warming by releasing a manmade counteractive agent into the atmosphere. The experiment backfires, setting off an ice age that freezes out mankind with the exception of a large band of humans that board a giant express train built by Wilford (Ed Harris), a genius that seems to have been underappreciated by contemporaries. His train, Snowpiercer, is like a rattling ark that never stops on its tracks. Now, seventeen years have passed, and the train rattles on while Earth remains uninhabitable. But an insidious class system has been invoked upon the train, based on the value of the ticket upon boarding.

At the head of the train, where the engine lies, Wilford reigns like a god, with every subsequent train lessening in power and status until we get to the very tail, where those that didn’t pay for a ticket at all have been huddled in degradation for almost two decades. While Gilliam (John Hurt) has been the leader of the impoverished, Curtis (Chris Evans) has slowly taken over such duties from his father figure, and with the help of Edgar (Jamie Bell) and Tanya (Octavia Spencer) they lead a raid against the frontal cars. Their first goal is to secure the train’s architect (Song Kang-ho, Joon-ho’s regular star) so they can jimmy their way through each threshold. Along the way, they fight through a series of dangerous foes, all seemingly coordinated by Wilford’s grotesque assistant, Mason (a superbly fascinating Tilda Swinton).

Not surprisingly, metaphors abound in this commentary on capitalism that unfolds like a descent into the inner circles of hell (with characters like ‘Gilliam’ and ‘Edgar’ named for the likes of Edgar Wright and Terry Gilliam). While much of this preordained microcosm unfolds without a hiccup, the narrative is a bit locked into an inescapable inevitability that culminates in a conversation between Evans and Harris that feels a bit too pointed, spoon-feeding us concepts that would seem more satisfactory if they were conclusions left for audiences to reach themselves. Yet, it’s a criticism that hardly matters, for even in its final throes there are horrors to be revealed that trump the obviousness.

An impressive diversity amongst the cast members lends a definite energy to the proceedings, what with the always welcome Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung (who you’ll also recognize from Joon-ho’s most widely consumed film, 2006’s The Host) and terrific turns from Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, and Jamie Bell. Even Chris Evans is incredibly watchable, playing a character that gets a surprising arc as we move with him through the train. But it’s Tilda Swinton who steals every conceivable moment she’s on screen, a macabre mutation of white privilege, first arriving as an augur from the head of the train, sent to exact vengeance on a petty offender of the tail who threw a shoe at a first class woman cherry-picking his offspring to take with her to the front. As despicable as her Mason is, Swinton’s a monstrous showstopper here.

For the most part, cinematographer Hong Kyung-Po’s (who worked on Mother, as well as Sion Sono’s most magnificent title, Love Exposure, 2007) and production designer Ondrej Nekvasil’s visual schemes are exemplary, each car of the train with a unique, vibrant energy. While some of the more spectacular uses of CGI sometimes appear to hinder the visual fabric of Snowpiercer, the film is magnificent enough to overcome these slights. Certainly, classism in a pre or post-apocalyptic context has been examined before (Roland Emmerich’s 2012 is an unworthy comparison that comes to mind), but Bong Joon-ho’s hellish nightmare takes us past a certain breaking point for the struggle to survive, examining emotional plateaus absent from the platitudes of Biblical allegories where semantics drained potency long ago. It was the end of times, it was the worst of times, and one of the best of times you’ll have in the theater this year.

Reviewed on June 11 at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival – Opening Night

★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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