Snowpiercer Is A Must-See

Entertainment Weekly released its “Apocalypse Issue” this week with a Mad Max cover and various stories of zombies, plagues and disaster. The slate of apocalyptic, dystopian-future-set films is vast and often interchangeable. One issue that has yet to be exhausted in the last few years, however, is climate change. In comes the environmental warning, culture-meld that is Snowpiercer.

Written and directed by Joon-ho Bong (The Host; Memories of Murder) and based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Snowpiercer tackles climate change with fierce bleakness, often glaring at the audience with a stark warning of how carnal life can get in the darkest (and coldest) of hours.

In this alternate universe, the world’s governments created an opportunity to end global warming. A chemical agent was thusly shot into the upper levels of the atmosphere. The resulting ice age killed most of humanity, except the precious few who managed to board the train of the benevolent leader Wilford. Now, eighteen years later, all of human life lives on one eternal train in constant motion circling the globe.

Much like society beforehand, class stratifies the train. The rich are up front; the poor live in the tail. Amenities are dispersed accordingly with the wealthy dining on the finest of steaks—bred somewhere along the train—and the poor gnawing at a mysterious, gelatinous mass of “protein.” Space is similarly proportioned accordingly. Thousands of people crowd the final few cars, living in abject poverty covered in grime and who knows what else.

snowpiercer2Subtle exposition alerts the audience of prior revolutions that failed, but Curtis (Chris Evans in a strong performance) and his crew of societal have-nots (including Octavia Spencer, John Hurt and Jamie Bell) are in the planning stages of moving up (or forward) in the world. The only problem is the brutal authoritarian police they must plow through, and in such limited space with inferior resources, the task is near impossible.

But that’s just the most prominent layer of this wonderfully gripping movie. Its existence seemed impossible to American studios upon first discussions. How would Joon-ho’s typical South Korean flare take with American audiences? Korean horror, the director’s wheelhouse, is equal parts psychological and, well, horrifying. These films are dark, gory and often difficult to watch. This expectation makes Snowpiercer all the more brilliant.

Tension crowds the senses and you feel the claustrophobia of spending almost the entire movie inside that beautifully crafted train. When Curtis opens one gate to a veritable sea of masked men wielding hatchets and swords, you get chills similar to Oh Dae-Su’s hammer battle in Oldboy (2003).

snowpiercer 3

Yet, in an American twist, much of the violence is heard or imagined, rather than seen. We hear the hatchet crack bone and the squish of blood splatter, but most of it occurs offscreen. This allows you to keep your eyes transfixed upon the captivating cinematography that utilizes light in a way that would make Japanese directors of the 30s marvel at the intricacy. It’s a welcome reward for holding your gaze firm.

As Curtis makes his way through the train, we see how advanced this vehicular society is and how entrenched its occupants are in their ways. Children sing songs of staying inside to avoid freezing and dying. Wondrous aquariums and gardens fill other cars before morphing into a club-like scene of narcotic decadence and opulent costumes.

Stunning set pieces are all well and good, but the true key to this puzzle is the juxtaposition of styles—both in character and filmmaking. The overarching layer of Korean cinema mixing with American forms gives the film an excellent, artistic aesthetic that is rarely found in today’s action films. Meanwhile, as Curtis and his followers make their way through the richer cabins, we see their reactions to these resources that have been kept from them. The life they led in the tail was bleak, but Curtis learns that things are so much worse than they seem.

Snowpiercer provides you with opportunities to look away, to shy away from the harshness of this alternative reality. But you won’t, and you won’t want to. The combination of strong performances and stellar visuals keeps you engaged with the screen, while a gripping and tense story makes sure you are breathless by the close. In a summer when cookie-cutter action films are a dime a dozen, Snowpiercer stands out, refusing to acquiesce to standard formulas.

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