Doug Reviews: Snowpiercer

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Finally, after nearly a year since it was released in South Korea, Joon-Ho Bong’s Snowpiercer has arrived in U.S. cinemas. The film has won major acclaim since its international release last year and in this case, the hype is real—Snowpiercer is one of the year’s best.

It has been seventeen years since a failed experiment to stop climate change left the Earth encased in ice. The remains of humanity exist on the Rattling Ark, or Snowpiercer, a long train that runs a circuit around the world every year. The train has been divided into a strict caste system. The haves live in the front, while the have nots stay in the tail section. Curtis (Chris Evans) has a plan to get to the front of the train and overthrow the mysterious Wilford, the man who created the train. He is joined by other members of the tail section and opposed by both Wilford’s soldiers and his mouthpiece, Mason (Tilda Swinton). I won’t spoil what happens plot-wise, but what moviegoers get is a smart, violent film with huge shocks at the end.

There is a lot of weirdness in Snowpiercer, some of it working better than other parts. The film is based on a French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige, but it has a very anime feel to it with strange characters, especially Mason, who seem to be bizarre just for bizarreness’ sake. The editing at the start of the film is very anime too, so I was surprised to find out that it’s based on a French graphic novel as opposed to a Japanese manga. Also, some of the elements of the train’s society didn’t ring true to me based on the timeline. Wilford is put forth as a deity by those who serve him and they spread that message to all. While it’s true that Wilford’s people are probably just about indoctrinating the younger generations for control, it just felt like more time should have passed for something like that to develop and take hold. So, some of the weirdness just to be weird and a few other elements didn’t allow me to completely buy into the world, but I was enthralled with the characters and the story.

The train is pretty cool and has plenty of surprises in store. Several of the different cars feel like homages to different sci-fi films smashed together. The tail section is very Mad Max, while farther up the train, there is kind of a Matrix feel to the proceedings. Everything blends together well, though, to make the film visually arresting.

The cast does a spectacular job here. Chris Evans gives one of his best performances as Curtis, the reluctant leader haunted by a past he wants to forget. Jamie Bell is good as Curtis’ sidekick, Edgar, while Octavia Spencer brings quiet desperation to Tanya, the grieving mother. Tilda Swinton is perfectly despicable as Mason and John Hurt brings his usual gravitas to the wise Gilliam. Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko are great as a father-daughter team that helps the tail section passengers move up the train.

Overall, Snowpiercer is not only a great sci-fi film, it’s also one of the year’s best, period. It’s a very dark film with hopeful moments, depending on how you look at them. But, it’s well worth taking a ride.

 

Rating: A-

Snowpiercer is in limited release and available on VOD.

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2 Comments

  1. Just caught this one on VOD. I liked the acting (Swinton is particularly excellent as Mason), but I felt like the direction and writing choices left me wanting. I agree that it borrowed heavily from anime style, and the themes of class war and the nature of our human condition, combined with the close quartered set, give the whole piece an air of Brecht-ian theatre. I enjoyed the concept of “train as metaphor for humanity”, but I feel like it somewhat failed to meet its lofty aspirations.

    I felt like the story and writing fall apart under observation, and the ending seemed far too hopeful for such a bleak setup. I wouldn’t care if this was a Die Hard film, but given the promising beginning of the film, I scrutinized a little more while watching. A few things that really bothered me, in no particular order (and I’ll try to dance around spoilers here):

    1. Inconsistencies with the established laws of the film. If the rear of the train has been deprived of resources and food, why do they resemble depression laborers and not concentration camp victims? How do they know how to operate assault rifles, or reload them?

    2. Where did the Rowdy Roddy Piper security man get his Wolverine-level healing powers from?

    3. What was the point of the observation car bullet exchange?

    4. We know who is maintaining the train, but who is maintaining the track?

    5. If you never go outside, why would you buy or create a giant fur coat? Where are the materials from?

    As I said, I wouldn’t be wondering these things if the film was a generic action piece, but I felt like the film was distancing itself from thought-free fare.

    While I liked aspects of this film, it ultimately felt like a bit of a let-down given its high praise and intriguing premise.

    • Good points all, Jim, especially about the track and the health of the rear passengers.

      I would say that some of those in the rear section may have known how to use weapons. We never really learn about their lives before the train and it has only been 17 years.

      Roddy Piper’s recovery, I would say, was pure will. You can see that when he faces Nam at the end, he’s still really messed up, teetering on his feet. It did come off as a Terminator type thing, but I bought into it, probably because of all the general weirdness of the piece.

      The bullet exchange was there, I think, to demonstrate that both Roddy Piper (good comparison there, btw) and Curtis were willing to go all the way with their convictions. Watch the other soldiers when they see the holes in the glass – they quickly move to try and plug them, while Curtis and Piper don’t care. They are singular in their goals and it shows just how bad it’s gotten on the train.

      The fur coat thing could be argued as they were brought aboard from the start or they could be faux furs. I would imagine it would still get pretty cold on the train. All the tail passengers are dressed in layers and Mason made a real show of being cold with her own fur coat when she visited the tail.

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