For a while there, it looked as though South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer would never get an official English-language release at all. Late last year, it emerged that Bong’s ambitious science fiction film had been picked up for release in English-speaking countries by The Weinstein Company. When the Weinsteins, true to form, voiced their desire to produce a shorter version of Snowpiercer, the director understandably dug his heels in and refused to budge.
For several months, Snowpiercer hung in limbo, even as its release in territories like South Korea and France saw great financial returns and rave reviews. But in February this year, it was announced that Snowpiercer would be coming out after all, and oddly, in a slightly longer form than was seen elsewhere – with a duration of around 140 minutes versus the earlier cut’s 120. Sadly, it doesn’t currently look as though Bong’s film is going to get much of a release in America – the most recent reports suggest a limited run in a handful of theatres from the 27th June – and its release date hasn’t even been announced in the UK yet.
For those anxious to see Snowpiercer, we’d strongly recommend importing the version currently available on disc in France. The only sticking point is that its handful of scenes in Korean are subtitled into French, making them impossible to follow if you’re unfamiliar with the language. But if you do know a smattering of French, then it’s the perfect way of seeing what is a fabulous sci-fi film.
Whether you choose to import the disc or wait until it gets an official release, here are 10 reasons why you shouldn’t miss Snowpiercer.
1. Its imaginative premise is superbly realised
We’ve seen plenty of great sci-fi ideas on the big screen in recent years, but few as compellingly put together as Snowpiercer‘s. Based on the French graphic novel by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, it’s set in a near-future where an experimental device has plunged Earth into the midst of a new ice age. The last fragment of humanity exists on the Snowpiercer, a gigantic train built by a billionaire mad genius.
Inside the train, a new kind of Cold War takes place. The wealthy live well away from the lower classes, who are forced into the rearmost cars and held there by a brutal private army of guards. Director Bong Joon-ho (most famous in the west for his superb creature feature, The Host) brings the interiors of these carriages to life brilliantly. The sense of squalor and confinement hangs thick in the air, and the director achieves some real richness of texture and detail in his sets, built in the Czech Republic.
2. Chris Evans is on career-best form
He may be best known for playing the earnest superhero Captain America these days, but Chris Evans has repeatedly proven his worth as a dramatic actor in a range of smaller films. Snowpiercer’s the perfect showcase for his talent, and he’s on magnificent form here. He plays Curtis, who becomes the reluctant leader of the lower classes when plans for a revolution begin to formulate.
Where Marvel movies commonly require Evans to put on a larger-than-life persona, Snowpiercer allows him to head in the opposite direction: his hero is quiet and self-contained, and many of the film’s most effective moments involve him watching the movements of his captors. Waiting. Calculating. A last-act monologue from Evans is a particularly powerful scene, and explains so much about his character’s attitude and motivation. If there’s any justice, other directors will take note of just how magnetic the actor is in this sequence alone.
3. Tilda Swinton is equally good as one of the central antagonists
An actress with a seemingly fearless approach to her craft, Tilda Swinton is one of Snowpiercer‘s highlights. She plays Minister Mason, a sublime comic creation: the spokesperson for the upper classes, she appears once in a while to give the proletarians long lectures on obedience and their rightful place in the lower order of things, all from behind an absurd set of dentures and an amusingly geometric haircut. Such a cartoonish performance might seem like a miscalculation on paper, yet it works sublimely in the film itself; Snowpiercer is an extremely violent and harsh film in places, and the humour acts as a welcome counterbalance.
4. Then again, the entire cast is outstanding
Bong Joon-ho has assembled an exceptional international cast for Snowpiercer. John Hurt is perfectly cast as the dignified Gilliam (a mischievous name if ever there was one), a leader among the lower classes who’s fast becoming too old and weak to head up a bloody revolution. Jamie Bell is great value as Edgar, a wide-eyed sidekick to Chris Evans’ Curtis. They’re joined by South Korea’s Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung, America’s Octavia Spencer, Alison Pill from Canada, and Ewen Bremner from Scotland. Ed Harris also stars as the enigmatic designer of the train, Wilford, but we’ll let you find out about him for yourself.
5. It credits its audience with intelligence
Having set its scene with little more than a couple of establishing shots and a caption or two, Snowpiercer throws us into the meat of its story, and lets its audience fill in the blanks along the way. At no point does the film pause for tedious exposition, which is refreshing for what feels like a big, mainstream sci-fi blockbuster. The approach is brilliantly judged: as the uprising begins and Curtis’ revolutionists begin advancing through the train, we share their sense of discovery.
As they learn more and more about what lies ahead of them in each carriage, so do we. It’s slightly terrifying that The Weinstein Company was once set on re-editing Snowpiercer and adding explanatory narration over the top of its remains; that sense of discovery would surely have vanished in the process.
6. It’s often visually stunning
Bong Joon-ho’s influences can be seen quite readily in Snowpiercer. The dark fantasies of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Terry Gilliam have clearly left their mark (the latter openly paid homage to in John Hurt’s character), and Snowpiercer contains their eccentricity and oblique humour. But there are also references to The Shining, Battleship Potemkin and other classics of Russian cinema, and even Ken Levine’s videogame, Bioshock. It’s a rich stew of visual ideas, to be sure, but they all coalesce into something that looks and feels startlingly new: we won’t spoil what happens later in the film, but the contrast between the dingy squalor of the rearmost carriages and those further in front is striking and thrilling to see unfold on the screen.
7. It works brilliantly as an action thriller
Packed though it is with superb performances, Snowpiercer is also a thrilling action film. Working in a confined series of spaces, Bong Joon-ho stages some magnificent set-pieces, as Curtis’ revolutionists clash with wealthy passengers’ retinue of guards and assassins. The sense of claustrophobia and brutality are a little like a horizontal version of Gareth Evans’ The Raid, with cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo capturing every bloody moment with an unflinching eye.
8. It’s funny and surprising
A few weeks ago, we mentioned to Terry Gilliam that it’s becoming increasingly rare to find mainstream films that contain a sense of mischief or iconoclasm. Now, while you could argue that Snowpiercer isn’t a mainstream film, it’s still an expensive one by South Korean standards (estimated budget: about $40m), and has clearly been made with a global audience in mind.
How refreshing, then, to encounter a film that so boldly lampoons political ideas, social order, religion and human nature within the framework of an action thriller. The central idea that the train’s engine and its operator have become deified and worshipped by the wealthy is a brilliant one, wryly handled and easily missed among the sheer wealth of things going on at any one time. Gilliam would surely be impressed.
9. It stands up to repeat viewings
The richness of detail and the swerving nature of Snowpiercer’s plot is such that it deserves to be seen more than once. Admittedly, not all the things that happen in Snowpiercer are necessarily that difficult to guess, but it’s arguable that some of the plot developments cast earlier events in a different light. What makes Snowpiercer so satisfying is that its microcosmic world feels so fully thought-through; one character mentions that everything has to be kept in a perfect balance, and that extends to the design of the train’s huddled populace and the way it functions. It’s things like these that can be appreciated over and over again.
10. It’s thought provoking and remains true to its own bleak vision
Where so many science fiction films conjure up a believable sci-fi world, only to throw it away for something more generic in the second half – the interesting but flawed The Purge immediately springs to mind – Snowpiercer continues to expand and interrogate its own ideas right to the very end. Snowpiercer begins as a sci-fi dystopia in the tradition of novels like We and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but ultimately expands beyond the familiar themes of top-down control and oppression, and into more fundamental territory: humankind’s seemingly inescapable capacity for violence, cruelty and selfishness.
Bong Joon-ho never shrinks away from these bleak underlying themes, and while they’re dressed up in the clothes of a blackly comic satire or a pulse-pounding action film, they remain in place from beginning to end. These three strands have formed the basis of some of the very best genre works in the past, from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, and they’re what makes Snowpiercer such an immensely satisfying, unforgettable science fiction film.
Snowpiercer‘s UK release date has yet to be announced. When we get one, we’ll be sure to pass it on. Our review of the film is here.
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