For all intents and purposes, Snowpiercer shouldn’t exist. Today, we live in a movie world packed to the brim with blockbuster franchises and small intimate dramas, with little to no room in the middle. The major studios are content to milk every franchise in their grasp, i.e. last weekend’s newest Transformers, while the indie scene is more than happy to produce small-scale dramas for those tired of the endless spectacle. This is an extremely worrisome trend, as studios have little to no interest in investing in films that don’t have franchise potential, while the independent scene has no desire to try and compete with the major studios. The result is an increasingly bifurcated market that grows more and more lethargic and lackluster by the day. It’s for these very reasons, however, that Snowpiercer is such a breath of fresh air; in a time where the studio and independent scenes couldn’t seem more opposite, Snowpiercer manages to find the perfect balance between the two, combining the intimate, human drama of an indie with the bombastic, balls-to-the-wall craziness of the modern blockbuster. It isn’t perfect, but Snowpiercer is one of the most refreshing and exciting films of the year.
Snowpiercer is a science-fiction story about class-warfare on a post-apocalyptic train. 17 years after global warming caused the Earth to freeze over, a massive train is our last hope. Constantly circling our dead planet, the train is the last vestige of man, home to the only survivors of our self-imposed destruction. But rather than all live peacefully, the train is segregated by class, with the affluent manning the posh front and the poor forced to live in the slum-like tail section. The film drops us into the middle of the formation of a new tail-section rebellion, with Chris Evan’s Curtis rallying an insurrection against the front. It’s a pretty simple premise but an extremely effective one thanks to Bong Joon-ho’s masterful direction.
The highlight of the film, Bong Joon-ho’s direction is nothing short of spectacular. The Korean director brings a palpable Eastern style to this very Western story, and the combination is brilliant. There’s a real grittiness he brings to the proceedings, expertly grounding a story that is inherently silly, allowing you to quickly look past the ridiculousness of the premise and really focus on the fascinating human drama that lies at it’s core. Joon-ho never gets sidetracked by all the craziness that this train holds, but smartly keeps the proceedings focused on Curtis and the rest of the well-written characters, using the train as a means of exposing and exploring some very real themes. He truly makes the train feel like an extension of our own world, using this story as a sort of warning about the direction that we as a species are headed. This isn’t a crazy, out of this world sci-fi romp, but rather a dire and provocative warning about the course we are set on, and Joon-ho never loses sight of this mantra. Similarly, he doesn’t shy from the hard questions. Like all great science fiction, Joon-ho uses the flexibility of the genre to probe questions inherent about our society and its people, but never gives into the desire to answer them for us. He may have his own opinions, but he wisely leaves it all just open-ended enough for the audience to bring their own opinions to the table.
That’s not to say that the film is all about heady, philosophical themes. At the end of the day this is the story about a full-blown class rebellion, so you’d hope there’d be some kickass action. Well you’ll be happy to know that Snowpiercer has action in spades, containing multiple fantastic action set pieces along with one of the most inventive fight scenes I’ve seen in a while. Not to spoil it, but it combines the first person night vision of Silence of the Lambs with the brutality of a Game of Thrones sword fight, and it’s freaking awesome. Similarly, Joon-ho structures the film almost like a video game, with each new compartment functioning like a new level, each with their own boss fight. This greatly amps the tension as you learn when to expect some sort of new action set piece, only for Joon-ho to play with your expectations.
Performance wise, Snowpiercer is strong, but it’s far from the highlight of the film. Tilda Swinton gives an especially crazy yet captivating performance but unfortunately is in it for far too little. Chris Evans, meanwhile, is good but not great. I really wasn’t a fan of his performance at first, but it grew on me as the film progressed. Regardless, I would’ve loved to seen someone else with a bit more versatility in the role as he seems to only have two modes in the film, angry-staring mode and action mode. He definitely doesn’t hurt the movie, but I can’t help but wonder what could’ve been had someone like Tom Hardy or Oscar Isaac been offered the role.
Nevertheless, don’t be discouraged because Snowpiercer is truly something special. It’s the perfect combination of Eastern filmmaking with Western sensibilities and the fact that it even exists is an achievement unto itself. If you’re reading this I urge you to go see it this weekend, as these are exactly the kind of films that deserve to do well. Show the major studios and Indies alike that we want more diversity in our films, that not everything needs to be mindless spectacle or small dramas, and that we support experimentation and change. People always like to blame the studios for shoving out nothing but franchises, but this isn’t a supply issue but rather one of demand. They keep churning out franchises because people keep paying to see them. So the solution is simple, go out and support Snowpiercer! Show the film industry that there’s a real demand for unique films such as this, show them we want something different. You’ll be doing me and everyone else a favor.
Review by James Hausman