“Why am I so freaking excited about this movie? Check out its cast: Tilda Swinton. Chris Evans. Jamie Bell. Alison Pill. John Hurt. Ed Harris. Octavia Spencer. South Korean actor Song Kang-ho, who was excellent in Park Chan-Wook’s 2009 vampire movie Thirst. I’m feeling Pacific Rim levels of anticipation here. Higher, even.” That’s what I wrote the very first time I heard about Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, all the way back in January 2013. I have been looking forward to this movie for seventeen months. To say I had high expectations going into it is like saying Michael Bay is mildly fond of explosions. Because I was looking forward to it so very much, potential for disappointment was high. So it goes.
But was I disappointed? Readers, I see a lot of movies. Most of them are good. Some are great. A small number I love. And every once in a while I see a movie that leaves me vibrating with energy as I leave the theater, knowing that what I just saw will stick with me probably for the rest of my life, or at least until the inevitable robot overlords come and conquer the planet. Snowpiercer is one of those.
Snowpiercer was the subject of a much-discussed controversy where its US distributor, The Weinstein Company, wanted to edit the film to make it more palatable to mainstream American audiences (“their aim is to make sure the film ‘will be understood by audiences in Iowa… and Oklahoma…’“). Ultimately that didn’t happen, but the compromise was that an uncut Snowpiercer would only get limited release. I don’t know what movie Harvey Weinstein was watching—maybe he thought “Woah, South Korean director and some Korean dialogue, what is this, some art-house foreign shit?! People will never watch that!”—because for all that what I saw has some seriously dark content, an incredibly bleak worldview (humanity dies because it tries to fix global warming), and is packed full of metaphors about class issues and human nature, it is absolutely an entertaining, even crowd-pleasing, movie.
The plot is fairly basic. As anyone can glean from the trailers, Snowpiercer takes place in a world beset by a new ice age. All what’s left of humanity lives on a train, where they’re separated into the haves and the have-nots. One of the have-nots, Curtis (Chris Evans), leads his people in a revolution. The whole movie is just them trying to get from the back of the train to the front. But Snowpiercer never gets boring. Your favorite characters never feel completely safe. You never know if you’re going to leave a car where an intense action sequence took place and enter one where people straight from the Capitol scenes in The Hunger Games are nightclubbing their hearts out like there ain’t no tomorrow. You might think you know where the story’s going… but you don’t.
There’s a darkly surrealist tone to Snowpiercer that’s reminiscent of Terry Gilliam, if Terry Gilliam weren’t quite so… Terry Gilliam-y. There’s weirdness in this movie, for all that it’s more accessible than a Brazil or a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. During one blood-pumping fight scene Curtis slips on a fish. Again: Chris Evans slips on a fish. Tilda Swinton takes her false teeth out at one point for some reason. There’s a scene where our grizzled revolutionaries encounter a chipper elementary school teacher (Alison Pill) who leads her charges in a rousing singalong about how great Wilford, the God-like owner of the train, is. It’s ridiculous, but it works. The darkness, the action, the humor: Everything fits. This movie could’ve turned into a hard-boiled mess at any given point, but it’s so carefully stylized, so precise, that I accept things which I would never let fly in another movie (“That character’s clairvoyant? OK, I’ll buy it.”).
One of the reasons it works is that Snowpiercer is a visual masterpiece—the entire thing literally takes place in a series of boxes, but it’s never boring. Some of the dialogue’s a bit awkward and stilted at first, but as soon as you accept you’re watching a heavily-stylized surrealist dystopian sci-fi and not a gritty, “Nolanesque” (as they say) sci-fi actioner, grrrrr, it all comes together. The key to tapping into the tone of the movie is something a character says late in the film: The experience of living on the train has driven everyone on it ever-so-slightly (or more than ever-so-slightly) crazy.
That brilliant creative decision on the part of Joon-ho and screenwriter Kelly Masterson leads to great performances from the entire cast, which is another huge reason why Snowpiercer didn’t fall on its face. You have never in your life seen another performance like the one Swinton gives in this movie, and I know you can say that about most Swinton performances, but trust me on this—you need to experience it. Incidentally, her character, Mason, was a man in Le Transperceneige, the graphic novel on which Snowpiercer is based.
And Chris Evans. Oh, Chris Evans. Curtis has similarities to Evans’ most famous role—both he and Captain America are men trying to be both a good person and a good leader when everything is stacked up against them. You can make a case for (or, for that matter, write fanfic about) Curtis being Cap in a particularly grim AU. But Snowpiercer strives for more than the MCU’s solid (but fairly basic) level of entertainment. With Snowpiercer, Evans gets to show you how good an actor he really is, and man oh star-spangled man does he deliver. Between this and Sunshine, he’s been in two of the best sci-fi movies to come out in the past ten years, hands down.
In a cast as big as Snowpiercer‘s, you’d think there’d be a weak point, but there really isn’t. Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Song Kang-ho, Ed Harris, Ewen Bremner, Ah-sung Ko, Luke Pasqualino, Marcanthonee Reis, and Vlad Ivanov all terrify, infuriate, intrigue, and/or cause intense emotional pain in turn. The only thing about Snowpiercer I really didn’t like at the time I was watching it is the visual effects of the frozen hellscape outside the train. Frankly speaking, it looks fake. But the more I thought about it, the more it grew on me. Like I said, Snowpiercer is an incredibly visually stylized movie. The world outside the train is supposed to look fake, to look distant and unreachable and unreal, because for the people on the train… it is. It’s mere feet away, but they’ve lost all hope of ever setting foot on it again. The train is the only thing that’s real.
I fear The Weinstein Company, with the aforementioned limited release, is trying to bury this one. It’s been out in other countries for months, and many people already illegally downloaded the French version in the wake of Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘s release (and why didn’t TWC put Snowpiercer shortly after it to capitalize on Evans mania?). Going into Snowpiercer I felt like I was one of the few people who hadn’t seen it yet, and I got into an advance press screening weeks before it even came out in the States! I’ve seen the trailer in a movie theater once—once—at an indie theater that plays trailers for whatever its upcoming movies are. Not in a Regal theater. Not in an AMC.
All this is to say, it looks like The Weinstein Company doesn’t think all that many people want to see Snowpiercer. They don’t think a weirdo dystopian movie with a South Korean director and partially Korean dialogue where one of the main actors (the always excellent Song Kang-ho) is mostly unknown to American audiences and Chris Evans slips on a fish has mainstream appeal. Prove them wrong. Snowpiercer comes out next Friday, June 27th. If you can, if it it’s playing near you, see this movie. Pay to see this movie. Take your friends, take your family, take your pet fish. Stand up for original sci-fi that’s not Transformers 4 or, yes, Captain America 3.
And see a damn fine movie in the process.