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Friday, July 4, 2014

Review: Snowpiercer

There's a challenge to intelligent science fiction, and we know that because there's so little of it out there. For every Blade Runner, there's four awful Transformers films. For every Inception or Looper, we drown ever deeper in franchise fare. Creative, original world-building is so often a dirty word in Hollywood, yet when its given a chance to thrive, it can finds its audience and pay off dividends (such as the two above examples), or fail miserably (Edge of Tomorrow). The latter scenario leads to the studios relying on "another Iron Man movie". Snowpiercer is one of these original, thoughtful, well-written ventures that, turn-after-turn, has nearly been gutted by the studio system, either barely evading intensive cuts to its running time or in its befuddling release schedule. You'd almost think the Weinstein Company was embarrassed by what they have here, which by the way, is utter gold and one of the best written sci-fi excursions in recent memory.

The premise is fairly audacious: The world has frozen over due to humanity's attempts to halt global warming. While most of the human race has died out, the few remaining live on "the rattling ark", a train that travels across the world as the lone place of shelter, and is run a mysterious man named Wilford. The hierarchy of the train is something akin to Metropolis or Elysium, where the upper-crust passengers are in the front cars and the further back you go, the lower the ladder in social stratification are the passengers until you get to the "free-loaders" in the very back end of the train. Forced to eat gelatin-like protein bars and sleep in deplorable conditions, Curtis (Chris Evans) has had enough, and teams with fellow back-train passengers Edgar (Jamie Bell) and Tanya (Octavia Spencer), as well as Nam & Yona, a drug-addled security expert and his equally addicted daughter (Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung). The crew look to Gilliam, a multiple amputated, wizened sage (John Hurt) who will attempt to lead a revolution to take the train's engine, car by car, where all other previous uprisings have failed.

Snowpiercer is a movie that benefits from a little bit of mystery. I went into the theater knowing nothing about the film whatsoever, so I had no preconceived notions about what sort of movie it was supposed to be. I was blown away by the acute mixture of social commentary and gonzo action. None of this should come as a surprise those familiar with Bong Joon-ho's previous work, particularly The Host, and add in the fact that this excursion was made for only $40 million dollars, the inventiveness on display is utterly radiant. If you take the politics of Fritz Lang, meld it with the "balls to the wall" action of movies like The Raid or Dredd, and coat it in the visual flair of the best of Terry Gilliam (the naming of a character after him is no coincidence) or even City of Lost Children, you'd have a solid idea of what you're getting into with Snowpiercer.

It's the latter escalation that makes Joon-ho's work so exciting in many ways. Much of the rest of the film you could argue we've seen before, but every time Curtis and his band move into a new train car, we as viewers are enraptured by what might be behind the next door. Needless to say, the obstacles and surprises get more deadly each time, but that doesn't mean the film can't take the time to stop and find dark humor in its various scenarios. For example, I challenge you to find another action movie where the combatants take the time to have sushi in the midst of chaos. Tilda Swinton as the "mouth of the opposition" Mason, is another source of levity, giving an appropriately cartoonish performance that is pitch perfect with the otherworldly "big brother" atmosphere. 

Amongst the cast, there's not a sour note to be found, though all basically fade into the background behind the expectedly stoic Evans and the hilarious Swinton. In truth, the real star here is Bong Joon-ho himself, which is often the case in spectacles of this nature, but his masterful ability to shift between moods of stunningly shot action and thoughtful sci-fi is what makes Snowpiercer work as well as it does. Even from a visual stand-point, the creep up in the train, from the slums in the tail to the increasingly opulent decadence of the front cars, gives way to a gorgeously broad visual palette that enlivens what could have been a far more mono-chromatic experience in lesser hands.

Snowpiercer is exactly the kind of movie audiences need, especially on a July 4th weekend where all the big openers are critically reviled slop. Do yourself a favor, get away from the giant robots and get on this train instead. It's well worth the ticket.

Grade: A
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