Sunday, July 27, 2014

Review - Snowpiercer

The notion that everybody has their preordained place in life, and that stepping beyond one's bounds leads to a collapse in social order, is probably not a popular opinion in our modern world. It's ironic then that this would be one of the themes central to Snowpiercer, the latest effort from Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho, a director who so defies categorization that it's impossible to imagine what his bounds would be, even if he ever had any. Never content to coast on a set track, he has delivered another singular and unique cinematic achievement, albeit an imperfect one.
Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Snowpiercer is set in a post-apocalyptic future in which a radical atmospheric treatment intended to combat the effects of global warming has resulted in a new ice age, and the mass extinction of virtually all life on Earth. The only survivors of this cataclysmic cold snap are those who happened to be on board the Snowpiercer, a life-preserving locomotive that now circles the frozen world in perpetuity.

For 17 years it's been rattling around the Eastern hemisphere, during which time a dichotomous society of haves and have-nots has developed. The wealthy few get to enjoy all the amenities of the front cars, from steak to sushi to saunas. The lowly masses, meanwhile, are crammed into the back of the train like sardines, forced to survive on gelatinous protein bars “generously” supplied by the train's reclusive designer/engineer Mr. Wilford, who the front passengers have essentially deified.

Needless to say, the plebs in the caboose are fed up. Curtis (Chris Evans) is ready to stage a revolt, and has been receiving secret messages from a mysterious tipster in the front of the train to help him. But even though his route to salvation is literally straightforward, his journey (and ours) has a lot more twists and turns than anticipated.
For a science fiction with such lofty ambitions to ever be produced and distributed for a mainstream market is sort of miraculous, but it's a shame that Bong's execution draws focus away from the richness of the story. His fondness for ultraviolence might prove off-putting for some, or simply distracting for others who are more drawn to compelling thematic content than grisly action sequences. What's even more cringe-inducing are the odd morsels of humour that he sprinkles in amongst these gruesome set-pieces, which feel weird to laugh at given the film's otherwise heavy-handed tone.

At the opposite end of the action spectrum (and of the train, for that matter), a pair of lengthy third-act monologues threaten to either prematurely derail the film with their strange revelations, or simply to stop the film in its tracks with their extended verbosity. Fortunately, the 'big ideas' being presented in these late-breaking speeches are enough to keep things ploughing forward just like the titular locomotive itself, for it is here where the undertones of class disparity complete their transition into Snowpiercer's true metaphor: ecological sustainability.

It's no mistake that Bong and his co-screenwriter Kelly Masterson have made the word “extinct” a catch-all phrase in their dystopic lexicon for anything that simply no longer exists; living organism or inanimate object. It's also probably no coincidence that for the film's memorable final image, Bong chooses to show us – staring directly at us through the camera, no less – a creature that people today most closely associate with the idea of extinction (specifically due to climate change). I suppose it's wiser of him to pack that message into a potent parting shot than to make the entire film an environmentalist guilt trip.
The film sports a fine international cast that includes Song Kang-ho, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Alison Pill, the great John Hurt, and the inimitable Tilda Swinton, who splendidly chews the scenery with her prosthetic buckteeth. She is the obvious standout, but it should be mentioned that Evans is quietly doing his career's best work here; Reliably stoic as the reluctant leader, but radiating more and more righteous fury as he marches forward towards the engine, and towards an almost mawkishly morbid confession that he nevertheless manages to sniffle through with straight-faced conviction.

As for the look of the picture, Bong certainly knows how to capture the eye's attention. His cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo finds enough interesting ways to shoot each scene despite limited space. Ondrej Nekvasil's sensational production design inventively conveys the squalor of the tail, the vulgar luxuries of the front cars, the almost spiritual minimalism of the engine, and more, often within rooms no more than 15 feet wide!

So if typical summer multiplex fare is leaving you out in the cold, hop on board the Snowpiercer. It has ample visual flare and plenty of though-provoking motifs you'll be glad to chew on – so long as you can stomach all the blood splatter.

*** out of ****

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