Action Adaptation

A Film Review for the 99 Percent: Snowpiercer

July 18, 2014Ben Mk


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All aboard for director Joon-ho Bong's wild ride...

The world is a big place, but movies help make it a little smaller by placing the viewpoints of filmmakers far and wide within our grasp. Still, that doesn't mean cultural and language barriers don't oftentimes prevent films from reaching their widest possible audience. Rare is the film that can be all things to all people, but Snowpiercer might just be that kind of rarity: directed by South Korean filmmaker Joon-ho Bong, based on the 1982 French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige, and starring an international cast, it taps into universal themes of humanity for its story of a post-apocalyptic train ride gone off the rails.

   

The year is 2031, and the train called the Snowpiercer has been endlessly traversing the globe for the last 17 years, ferrying the last vestiges of humankind on a journey without end. Ever since the planet was plunged into a second Ice Age by the dispersion of CW-7 gas into the Earth's upper atmosphere — a measure meant to curtail the effects of global warming — it has been a sanctum for every last man, woman and child.

But salvation comes at a price, and that price is strictly-enforced order. For to live aboard the Snowpiercer is to be a citizen in a dictatorship ruled by the iron-fisted Wilford, a man who elects to remain in the shadows while his mouthpiece, Mason (Tilda Swinton, looking even more unrecognizable than she was in The Grand Budapest Hotel), brings his decrees to the masses. Each of the train's passengers is but a cog in Wilford's self-contained, self-sustaining machine, and knowing one's place is paramount to ensuring one's survival: the poorest people are resigned to the train's tail section, while the wealthy indulge in opulence and vice at the front of the train. "So it is," as Mason says.

Chris Evans plays the film's central protagonist, Curtis Everett, a man about as far removed from the actor's best-known role (that of Steve Rogers/Captain America) as you can get. Having spent half his life in the squalid conditions at the rear of the futuristic locomotive and committed unspeakable acts in the name of survival, Curtis now finds himself the reluctant leader of an uprising that sees Snowpiercer's most underprivileged residents attempt to rise up and seize control of their own destiny. By no means is it a novel idea, nor has it ever worked out well in the past; but, according to Curtis, all previous revolts failed because they neglected to take the train's Eternal Engine, a mistake he has no intention of repeating.

There's much maniacal glee to be had in watching Curtis and his compatriots — including his friend, Edgar (Jamie Bell), from whom Curtis withholds a dark secret, mentor, Gilliam (John Hurt), who's "a shadow of a shadow of his former self", and Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and Andrew (Ewen Bremner), who've both had their children taken away from them and are desperate to learn their fate — storm from train car to train car. As they do, they violently face off against all manner of enemies: from axe-wielding soldiers to gun-toting schoolteachers and drug-addled ravers. Along the way, they even engineer a jailbreak of sorts, busting out security expert Namgoong (Kang-ho Song), the only man with the know-how to get them all the way to the other end of the train, and his daughter, Yona (Ah-sung Ko), from a morgue-like prison car.

Bong, who makes his English language feature debut with the film, imbues Snowpiercer's over-the-top action set pieces with the same visual panache that's earned him accolades in his home territory of South Korea, bringing a unique twist to each one. It's impossibile to know what the next battle holds for our band of freedom fighters, whether it's brutal and bloody melee combat or a Wild West-inspired shootout, not to mention the moments of über-cool Matrix-like action bravado that sneak up on you when you least expect it. It's that irrepresible element of surprise that allows Snowpiercer to soar, untethered by genre shackles, only picking up momentum as it rolls along.

Speaking of The Matrix, Snowpiercer owes a lot more to that landmark film than just its superficial stylistic flourishes. Though its story of striking back against totalitarian oppression starts out as a thinly-veiled allegory for the Occupy Movement, it slowly morphs into a narrative about illusory control mechanisms, evoking memories of the Wachowskis' grand design. Bong and co-writer Kelly Masterson also tip their hats to Terry Gilliam, not just in the naming of Hurt's character but in the way in which their script blends dark humor with futuristic surrealism and bizarre Orwellian machinations. The only negative is that the story's environmental message (if there ever was one to begin with) falls by the wayside amid all the excitement, but it's doubtful that audiences will really notice, as the end result is so deliriously entertaining.

The Bottom Line Like its locomotive namesake, once Snowpiercer gets going it's practically unstoppable. Barrelling along at a million miles an hour, director Joon-ho Bong's full-steam assault on the senses is a marvel to behold, bolstered by inventive action sequences, dark humor and a gritty narrative. And despite earlier fears that the film would be the victim of editorial tampering upon making its North American debut, it lands in cinemas uncut, so audiences on this side of the Pacific will be able to experience this wild ride as it was intended: in all its dazzling, dystopic glory.  Ben Mk








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