Review by-Jarrett Leahy
In the year 2014, a group of the planet’s leading scientists, in the hopes of reversing the devastating effects of global warming, release the chemical CW-7 into the planet’s atmosphere, unleashing a cataclysmic ice age that decimates the world’s population. Seventeen years later, only a handful of survivors remain, living on a self-sustainable train, originally created to be a luxury vacation experience, that circles the globe once a year. Set up as an oppressive class system, the poor, confined to wretched conditions at the back of the train, have longed to reap the excess benefits the elite at the front of the train are afforded. As frustrations mount, reluctant leader Curtis (Chris Evans), compels his fellow lower class members to revolt, making an attempt to reach the front of the train and the dictatorial leader who keeps them maltreated.
Snowpiercer, starring Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, and John Hurt, is a film many movie fans probably have heard little about. Directed by heralded South Korean filmmaker Joon-ho Bong, this dystopian sci-fi has had to fight to find an audience here in the U.S., thanks in large part to totalitarian executive Harvey Weinstein, who bought the U.S. distribution rights back in 2012. Unfortunately, when Weinstein was shown Bong’s final cut, he feared the film’s allegorical storyline and bleak, ultra violence would be too much for us “dumb Americans” to understand or appreciate. Weinstein was reported to have told Bong to cut nearly 20 minutes of the film’s 126 minute running time, or it wouldn’t be released. Only after a swell of critical and internet backlash did Weinstein back off this demand. But instead of receiving the national release Snowpiercer deserved, Weinstein only gave the film a limited release back in July, causing many movie fans to miss seeing this visual feast on the big screen.
Based on a 1982 French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige, written by Jacques Lob, Snowpiercer utilizes the claustrophobic confines of its high-tech locomotive to increase the unease and anxiety of this tension-packed thriller. Like most films whose source material is a graphic novel, Bong’s creation requires a heightened suspension of disbelief. A film set on a futuristic train can’t be judged under the restraints of everyday reality. Snowpiercer’s visuals are an impressive combination of alarming, graphic brutality and dazzling artistry, creating an ominous, foreboding atmosphere that never lets up. Aided by the help of a drug-addled security expert, as our group of insurgents moves their way closer and closer to the front of the train, each railway car they encounter is more outlandishly exotic and treacherous. Armed with only rudimentary weaponry, our ragtag group of rebels is forced to battle their way through an army of soldiers, ax-wielding assassins, and trained killers, all trying to keep them from reaching the extravagant comforts bestowed to the elite inhabiting the train’s anterior.
Blessed with an uncommonly gifted cast, Snowpiercer stars Chris Evans, an actor best known for his recurring role as Captain America. Playing apprehensive leader Curtis, Evans ably captures the inner torment of a man haunted by past transgressions that can never be fully suppressed or forgotten. As truths surrounding this mysterious ecosystem are divulged, Curtis must decide how far he is willing to go, and how much he’s willing sacrifice, to see his uprising come to fruition. But as notable as Evans is, the film’s devious scene-stealing performance comes from the acting chameleon, Tilda Swinton. Cold, calculating, with a grotesque set of fake teeth, Swinton has yet again outdone herself with this slimy portrayal of Minister Mason. Charged with keeping everyone in their rightful place, Mason’s callous tactics of oppression and intimidation reach unthinkable levels. Together, Evans and Swinton, along with a supporting cast that includes Academy Award nominees John Hurt, Ed Harris, and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer (2011 Best Supporting Actress, The Help), bring this bizarre and terrifying apocalyptic future to life.
While I personally found the film a bit more conventional and less revolutionary than it was originally sold as, it certainly deserved far better treatment and publicity than it wound up receiving from its U.S. distributor, The Weinstein Company. Not for the faint of heart and by no means flawless, Bong’s Snowpiercer is an ambitious piece of dystopian science fiction that offers a profusion of high intensity action that helps make up for any weaknesses some may find in the film’s narrative.-JL