- on Friday, 27 June 2014 17:42
- by Frank Wilkins
Reflecting the futuristic nihilism of such genre stalwarts as Blade Runner and Mad Max, the awkwardly titled Snowpiercer is a heavily-layered, captivating example of what we want the dystopian genre to do: entertain while also providing a somewhat convincing prediction of how the human race would respond in the face of cataclysmic destruction. Nailing one of these tasks is not easy, but director Bong Joon-ho strikes a perfect balance between the two while also providing a jumping off point for discussions about global warming, life and death, and class division.
Born from the pages of the French graphic novel Transperceneige, the South Korean/American co-production takes place in the immediate future where our Earth has suddenly become uninhabitable due to the disastrous result of a global warming cure-all.
Those who’ve survived our planet’s sudden demise are stowed aboard a train – called Snowpiercer – that perpetually circles the same track at super-sonic speeds, completing a single revolution each year. Outside the train, sure death awaits in the sub-zero clime. Inside, prospects are not much better for those lowly souls confined to the rear carriages which resemble a slum, filled with the cold and hungry forced to live on black, gelatinous protein cakes and their wits alone. The front section houses the chosen few who thrive in the lap of luxury with salons, spas, booze, drugs, and plenty of food. The train is an allegory for the rampant inequalities that plague our current society.
While it all sounds a bit silly and frankly, outright preposterous (especially when trying to describe it), Bong handles it all quite admirably despite overwhelming budget constraints. He even manages to explain away the perplexing question of “why a train?” His film carries a bleak but charming wonder that would likely be absent from a big-budget American production. In other words, he leans on characters, story, and imagination rather than on whiz-bang CGI wizardry. Certainly a refreshing change.
As the film opens, Curtis (Chris Evans) is in the planning stages of launching an insurgency against the train’s upper-class. Joined by cohort Edgar (Jamie Bell), Tanya (Octavia Spencer), and spiritual mentor Gilliam (John Hurt), his plan is to move forward, car by car, until they reach the engine which houses Wilford (Ed Harris), the mysterious, god-like authoritarian ruler who never leaves the front section of the train he designed.
One half action movie and one half political parable, Snowpiercer’s narrative themes are unmistakably Orwellian in nature as they evoke a dingy Cold War chill of proletariat vs. bourgeoisie, while its rather simple structure feels very video game-like as our heroes must constantly move forward through different cars, facing different “levels” as they advance to the engine.
Blocking their way however, is sadistic spokesperson Mason (Tilda Swinton) who keeps an oppressive eye on things as a sort of minister of communication for Wilford’s empire. She tells everyone to “know your place” and reminds them that even the lowest have a purpose in their collective goal of survival. Swinton is grotesquely delightful in her villainous role as she floats about draped in animal fur while sporting pop-bottle spectacles and a buck-toothed snarl. In her disappointingly short screen time, the chameleon-like Swinton takes her Mason from spitefully terrifying to sadly sympathetic, while never losing the astoundingly bizarre character we love to watch.
Not to be outdone though is Chris Evans who sheds his superstar Captain America persona for a cold, calculatingly steely character forced to claw for every scrap of survival. Curtis is clearly the story’s protagonist but Evans never shouts for our attention and Bong refrains from hero shot highlights and exaggerated back-lighting. Evans shows off his acting chops in a role that calls for a calculated balance between emotion and action.
Snowpiercer is a film not to be missed, especially by sci-fi aficionados. It is immersive, bold, violent, humorous, and at times outright nightmarish, yet, despite its rather complex underpinnings and multilayered intelligence, it is surprisingly approachable. Shamefully though, audiences will struggle to find it in theaters as it is working from a limited release and won’t likely reach Multi-plex theaters. Too bad, because rarely do these dystopian epics get enough things right to to become instant classics. Snowpiercer does.
MPAA Rating: R for violence, language and drug content.
Runtime: 126 mins
Director: Joon-ho Bong
Writer: Joon-ho Bong and Kelly Masterson
Cast: Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton
Genre: Sci-fi | Action
Tagline: AD 2031: the passengers in the train are the only survivors on Earth.
Memorable Movie Quote: "Know your place. Accept your place. Be a shoe."
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Release Date: October 21, 2014 (limited)
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: No details available
Synopsis: A post-apocalyptic ice age forces humanity's last survivors aboard a globe-spanning super train. One man (Chris Evans) will risk everything to lead a revolt for control of the engine and the future of the world.
Available on Blu-ray - October 21, 2014
Screen Formats: 1.78:1
Subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish
Audio: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Discs: 50GB Blu-ray Disc; Two-disc set (2 BDs)
Region Encoding: Locked to Region A
Thanks to Starz/Anchor Bay, sci-fi fans can see the amazing Snowpiercer in stunning 1080p high-definition. The film looks astounding on Blu-ray, with every costume, set and prop popping off the screen with glorious crystal clarity. Black levels go deep without any crushing of the image. From every grime of dirt to every spinning wheel, Snowpiercer is one of the better Blu-ray transfers this year on the mileage of the designs alone, as the poor, industrial area is as beautifully rendered as the glorious and colorful cars near the front. Despite the bluish hue filtered into the film, the depth of every image feels as it appears, which works all the better with the package’s great DTS 5.1 audio transfer.
- The first disc, which contains the feature film, features a “Critic’s Commentary”, moderated by former FEARnet critic Scott Weinberg and featuring voices from Deadline, Hitfix and more. Luckily, the critics speak to Weinberg on the film in sections, which saves the track from the expected cacophony and instead creates a dynamic that’s refreshingly articulate.
Perhaps the best quality of the blu-ray is the film’s wealth of impressive and fascinating special features, spread across two discs for your viewing pleasure. The bonus feature disc itself is equally as good as well, completely in high definition (a rarity for most blu-ray sets). The stand out of the bunch is the nearly one-hour documentary entitled “Transperceniege,” which is a comprehensive guide to how the film went from a graphic novel to the big screen. It’s one of the more interesting on-disc documentaries I’ve seen,though the disc saves the more gorgeous practical stuff for the 15-minute “Birth of Snowpiercer” featurette. The coolest and easily the most rewatchable feature on the set is the animated prologue, which depicts the events only heard or read during the opening crawl of the film.
- Transperceneige: From the Blank Page to the Black Screen -- A Documentary by Jésus Castro-Ortega (55 min)
- The Birth of Snowpiercer (15 min)
- The Characters (13 min)
- Animated Prologue (5 min)
- Chris Evans & Tilda Swinton on Snowpiercer (5 min)
- The Train Brought to Life: Behind the Scenes of a Special Screening (8 min)
- Concept Art Galleries