Written by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson
There was a lot of talk in the summer about Snowpiercer’s release strategy. After the film was acquired by the Weinstein Company, Harvey allegedly demanded director Bong Joon-ho make several cuts to the film and add a prologue and epilogue. Joon-ho refused, so Harvey responded by dumping the film into a limited theatrical release while simultaneously releasing it on VOD. This caused quite a stir, but I’m starting to wonder if the whole thing wasn’t just some ingenious plot by the Weinstein’s to get people’s attention. Snowpiercer became one of the most critically praised films of the year with damn near critic who saw it offering up praise. The theaters in my area didn’t get Snowpiercer and I wasn’t about to watch it via VOD. Instead, I’ve patiently waited and I’m ready to join the discussion.
In the near future, climate change grows out of control. With such desperate times, humanity devises a weather solution which intends to cool the earth to sustainable levels. Turns out their device goes too far and freezes the Earth, leaving it unstable to sustain life. The last remnants on humanity live on a train called “The Snowpiercer”. Created by an eccentric billionaire, The Snowpiercer runs on a perpetual motion engine on a track that spans the globe. There is a strict class system aboard the train. The upper class live in luxury near the front of the train, while the lower class live in the slums of the tail, where they are abused by guards daily. One of these lower class citizens is Curtis (Chris Evans) and he’s grown tired of their situation. With the help of others such as Tanya (Octavia Spencer), Gilliam (John Hurt), and Edgar (Jamie Bell), Curtis plans a revolt. The band together and release security specialist Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) and begin their mission to overtake the train from the wealthy.
The plot description makes the film’s social agenda pretty clear. This is a future where the classes are literally divided, with a minority living extremely comfortably, while the majority live in appalling conditions. The social consciousness is a nice touch, but it’s mostly a background detail. The actual story is a pretty straight-forward action movie plot; the people at the back of the train need to fight their way to the front. The characters are all basic archetypes and while there are some twists, for the most part the plot is fairly simple. What makes Snowpiercer a unique film is the execution, though I can’t say I can get behind all of Joon-ho’s decisions.
The most interesting aspect of Snowpiercer is definitely the world it creates. The concept of an anti-climate change device going wrong is pretty neat, but it’s the visuals of the train itself which are the real highlight. The tail-end slums feel gritty and authentic, and as Curtis’ crew moves through the train the audience is treated to all sorts of visual splendor including an aquarium car, a garden car, and a leisure car. The overall design is very detailed and feels lived in. You really buy into the setting. On the downside, the film is plagued by some very poor CGI which does take you out of the world. This isn’t too big a deal early on, but as the film goes and the CGI becomes more prominent, it becomes distracting.
The film also has a very bizarre tone. Early scenes are bleak and brutal, reflecting the harsh future created. However this is offset by moments of bizarre comedy which feel really out of place. Nowhere is this more pronounced than Tilda Swinton’s performance. While most of the cast plays their roles in a subdued manner, Swinton gives an insanely over the top performance. It’s baffling and, given the circumstances of everything else, terrible. The film adds other odd details, such as psychic character, which aren’t really explored and just sit awkwardly. I found myself so distracted by the tone and these odd details that the film’s dramatic moments and twists left no impact on me.
Despite the general inconsistency, Snowpiercer does have some really strong scenes. A highlight for example is a scene in a school car where an enthusiastic teacher (Alison Pill) instills propaganda into the children of the elite. It’s an over the top scene, but it works in the context of the film. There’s also a number of strong action set-pieces. A brawl through a dark tunnel is a lot of fun and there is a really intense shootout midway through. It should also be noted that the action is punctuated by some brutal violence. It’s not as graphic as something like The Raid 2, but it’s got an edge all the same.
Snowpiercer is definitely a mixed bag, so much so that the near unanimous praise kind of shocks me. I can’t help but wonder if the film being released so close to commercial garbage like Transformers: Age of Extinction made critics more willing to embrace something with clear artistic value, even if it has some serious problems. In any event, I’m glad I saw Snowpiercer, and I’d recommend it to the open-minded viewer. It’s not perfect, but it is unique and has a handful of really strong scenes.