Its metaphors and allegories may not be subtle — the whole of human society, the strata of haves and have-nots, shown as compartments on a train car — and it may be hard to watch at times, with all its crunching, spurting violence.
But the new sci-fi action drama "Snowpiercer" is nonetheless the most original and oddly stirring movie so far released this year.
A stark and grimy look at a terrible future, Bong Joon-ho’s film (his first in English), is unrelentingly bleak until, well, it relents. When it does, and its really only for a brief moment, the film achieves a kind of grace, a transcendence of all the dark obliteration preceding it, in a way we haven’t seen since "Children of Men," Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 masterpiece about another dystopia.
That’s high praise, as "Children of Men" is, I think, one of the great films of all time. "Snowpiercer" doesn’t quite reach the same level of profundity, but it is certainly a startling creative vision told with enough passion to rumble the seats. Based on the French graphic novel "Le Transperceneige," the film tells the story of a world gone cold. Like, really cold. In a vain effort to thwart the tide of climate change, us silly present-day people released a chemical into the air that ended up freezing the entire planet and killing almost everyone. The only people to survive are the passengers on a long high-speed train, built to circumnavigate the globe and keep humanity chugging along until, well, who knows when.
Humans being humans, the people on this train don’t live in harmonious equality, a great utopian society on rails. No, unfortunately the front of the train contains all the rich people and most of the food, while in the rear compartments a thousand or so people live in abject squalor, barely subsisting on a jiggling, gelatinous protein paste, and routinely harassed and intimidated by the train’s formidable security force.
There’s much being said here about class and poverty around the globe, and it’s being said loudly and plainly. That could be called blunt or un-nuanced, but it could also be called refreshingly honest. This is not just some moral screed about the ills of capitalism, though. "Snowpiercer" is also a rousing action story.
See, there’s a revolution fomenting in the steerage cars, led by Curtis (Chris Evans, doing probably his best work ever), who’s spent half his life on the train and is bound and determined to one day make his way to the front.
That, pretty much, is the movie: the slow and grinding process of moving from one car to the next, as forces from the front, led by a hideously toothed Tilda Swinton, doing a wonderful skewering of Margaret Thatcher, violently block their way.
Having spent the first thirty or so minutes in the dark dungeons of the rear cars, when "Snowpiercer" finally breaks through to a new section of the train, it’s both thrilling and sickening, that so much wealth and abundance, and all the hope it engenders, could exist so close to all that soul-crushing poverty. Think about that next time you drive from downtown Detroit to Grosse Pointe.
Its messaging aside, "Snowpiercer" builds an interesting, if not always credible, mythology surrounding the train and its various passengers. Particularly intriguing are Namgoong (Song Kang-ho) and Yona (Go Ah-sung), two drug addicts dragooned into helping the revolutionaries. Played with understated quirkiness by Go and Song, these two mysterious weirdos are addled and unreliable, but there’s something about them that commands attention.
The way that Bong weaves in their Korean with the rest of the cast’s English is simple but ingenious, one of the many details and flourishes that give this film an exquisitely tailor-made texture. The whole film is carefully constructed, with thoughtful production design by Ondrej Nekvasil and cinematography by Hong Kyung-po.
Though the film’s aesthetics are often elaborate, the film is always economical. There is little style for style’s sake here. In that vein, the many fight scenes are deftly choreographed, but look entirely natural, each thunk and crunch registering painfully. Bong does not shy away from gore, and the film is often hard to watch because of that, but if you can stomach it, the film’s less visceral, more intangible rewards are well worth it.
I don’t want to go into too many plot specifics here, because there is something of a mystery at work in "Snowpiercer." Best to see it for yourself and discover its many pleasures on your own. While "Transformers" mucks up cineplexes with its ugly bombast, here, as an alternative, is something truly special, a unique and bracing science-fiction film that stirs both heart and mind. Like the best sci-fi, "Snowpiercer" is political and relevant to the real-world, but never ignores its medium for its message. It’s a true work of art that left me rattled, and thrilled, for days.
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