Review: Snowpiercer (2014)



Joon-ho Bong
Joon-ho Bong, Kelly Masterson (Book “Le Transperceneige” by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, Jean-Marc Rochette)
126 min.
Chris Evans, Kang-ho Song, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, Ah-sung Ko, Alison Pill, Emma Levie
MPAA Rating
R for violence, language and drug content

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Source Material

The United States may finally be entering a period where quality and populism merge, a place it hasn’t been since the early 1990’s. Meanwhile, directors in various foreign markets are exploring the medium, expanding it and showing the world that they can do it as good as if not frequently better than their American rivals. Joon-ho Bong is carving out just such a niche, bringing his first English-language picture to the states with conviction and style few of his contemporaries seem able to master.

Snowpiercer tells a story set in the near future where an industrialist has developed a perpetual locomotive that will run forever within its closed system. After a global community tries to halt climate change with a man-made atmospheric seeder, the world is thrust into a new ice age, instantly extinguishing every human life on the planet except those who’ve sought refuge aboard the Snowpiercer.

Seventeen years have passed and the delicate balance is maintained by the train’s conductor who mandates that the poor who’ve boarded the train out of necessity, but without payment are mistreated, forced to eat lifeless protein bars and persist in an environment that makes the slum neighborhoods of various world wide cities look like Utopian pleasure centers. A revolution is coming as the downtrodden folk at the rear of the train are preparing a plan to be carried about by their reluctant, but idealistic leader Curtis (Chris Evans).

Evans has spent much of his career playing heroic characters whose physical presence and charm have been key to his success. Ramshackle and dirty, Evans uses those skills brilliantly to convey a sense of purpose, sorrow and fractured conviction as he leads his tired and resolute fellow passengers on a risky, deadly and especially violent fight to the front of the train.

Bong’s brilliant eye for composition helps elevate Snowpiercer beyond the world of the train. Confined in such tight spaces, he manages to alleviate the film’s early claustrophobia as the passengers successfully fight their way forward. Each new section of the train employs light, darkness, color and contrast to slowly enliven the world these passengers have never known giving us hope while dashing it almost simultaneously.

The stellar cast is capped by four superb performances. In addition to Evans, the incomparable Tilda Swinton melds into her fake nose, teeth and jagged fingers to give absolute repulsiveness to Mason, the Mouth of the Conductor. Mason’s lack of compassion blends with her wretched demeanor to perfectly encapsulate the vicious and hateful sentiments held by those who either discard or simply don’t care about the people being mistreated.

Jamie Bell is one of the few train-born passengers who has become a second-in-command to Curtis. His isn’t the kind of performance that would typically stand out, but Bell stands up to the task and creates one of the most compelling optimists in the film. Octavia Spencer shrugs off the smart-alecky style that has won her praise and an Oscar, shifting into downtrodden, passionate, maternal splendor. Hers is the most gorgeous and humane presence in the film embodying the faith and fright of the exploited.

Bong, who co-wrote the screenplay with Kelly Masterson based on the novel by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, Jean-Marc Rochette, has perfectly fused the science fiction, action and political drama genres into a pensive tract on the nature of wealth, the pervasiveness of indifference and the perseverance of purity. Snowpiercer deftly presents a treatise on the exploitation of those who cannot defend themselves while providing proof that even those without arms can take down those who oppose them. It celebrates the rebellious and justified masses in their attempt to stand up against those who would abuse them, use them and forget them all so that those who have the power do not lose it.

Snowpiercer is an unparalleled cinematic experience. A visually arresting feature that effectively employs all the great filmmaking techniques that have been developed over the last century, it is further supported by stunning narrative that demands the audience empathize with the persecuted and then draw parallels to the various struggles worldwide for equality in the face of growing financial dominance. Climate change is merely a catalyst for one of the most important political dramas of the last decade and possibly beyond.
Oscar Prospects
Potentials: Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing
Review Written
July 31, 2014

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