Thrilling, satirical, beautifully designed and packed with stars, ‘Snowpiercer’ is one of the finest and most satisfying movies of the summer. And yet, because it’s a Korean production that landed in the hands of the Weinstein Company, it’s barely getting released at all. Seek it out. You won’t regret it.
2013 should have been the year when the master Korean genre directors of the 2000s took over Hollywood. Park Chan-wook (‘Oldboy’) made the excellent Hitchcock homage ‘Stoker’, Kim Jee-woon (‘I Saw the Devil’) delivered the worthy Arnie Schwarezenegger comeback vehicle ‘The Last Stand’, and best of all Bong Joon-ho (‘The Host’) made the sci-fi masterpiece ‘Snowpiercer’. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. ‘Stoker’ was barely released, ‘The Last Stand’ flopped, and ‘Snowpiercer’ has been sitting on a shelf for over a year. All three movies deserved better, but ‘Snowpiercer’ is by far the most mistreated.
With the film, Bong managed to deliver an intellectually satisfying sci-fi think-piece that plays like an action movie, comes laced with biting social satire, and even stars Captain America himself, Chris Evans. It should have been an easy sell that would debut on the fall film festival circuit to critical acclaim before lapping up millions from genre movie fans at the box office. Instead, Harvey Weintstein fruitlessly tried to re-edit the flick for no apparent reason and is now barely letting the movie slip into theaters. Thankfully, the film speaks for itself. Even if this unceremonious release buries ‘Snowpiercer’ for now, cult status amongst genre movie aficionados is pretty much assured.
Based on a French graphic novel from the 1980s, the film is an apocalyptic yarn set on the titular Snowpiercer, a powerful train that circles the globe in perpetuity following the second Ice Age. All of the remaining human population lives on the Snowpiercer, with class divides running from back to front. The poor live on top of each other in back cars eating disgusting protein bars with little hope. In the front cabin, the train’s creator (Ed Harris) lives like a god, with all other social classes and human weaknesses filling the cars in between. Chris Evans lives in the back, and decides to launch a revolt. That journey goes from back to front in a viciously violent, yet goofy and satirical story that could only come from the mind of Bong Joon-ho.
The likes of Tilda Swinton, Jon Hurt, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Alison Pill and even Bong’s regular star Song Kang-ho all pop up in colorful roles clearly written for each actor, which perfectly define Bong’s uniquely somber, yet lovingly silly tone. It’s a story that gleefully pokes fun at itself and revels in the silliness and action potential of the concept, before delivering a tragic, cynical and rather brilliant finale that feels just as inevitable as it does unexpected.
‘Snowpiercer’ is the movie that Neill Blomkamp’s ‘Elysium‘ desperately wanted to be. It’s a pointed, troubling and heartbreaking portrait of the current world economic climate thrust into a perfectly constructed sci-fi action film. As a pure thrill ride, the movie delivers through the thunderous forward momentum of Bong Joon-ho direction. As visual spectacle, it borrows liberally (while directly referencing) the gritty live-action cartoon style of Terry Gilliam (‘Brazil’, ’12 Monkeys’) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (‘Delicatessen’) without feeling redundant. As a work of political commentary, it’s on point and disturbing without ever distracting from the genre movie thrills with political didactics.
In many ways, the film is a perfect example of this genre, filled with wonderful performances and characterization within the carefully crafted mechanics of the screenplay. It’s a movie that deserves every little bit of the adoration and respect it will get, even if most of the public appreciation won’t come until it hits Blu-ray and streaming services. This should be the alternative blockbuster and the sleeper hit of the summer. Sadly, it’s a buried cult movie in waiting. Find it, love it and spread the word.