While Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer was ploughing ahead in the director’s native South Korea, making $65m in that country alone last year, the sci-fi dystopia’s release in English-speaking markets ground to a halt. The intentions of The Weinstein Company were much-publicised: to lop out around 25 minutes of character development from the film’s 125-minute duration. There were also (thankfully false) internet rumours about a plan to paste in a Neil Gaiman-penned narration over the footage which remained.
The stand-off between director Bong and the Weinsteins, who wanted to make Snowpiercer accessible to “audiences in Iowa and Oklahoma” has, thankfully, been resolved since, and it seems that Snowpiercer will soon be screened uncut in countries such as Britain and America. In a strange parallel between life and art, the Weinsteins’ implied assumption that audiences in the southern states of America are too dim to understand Snowpiercer‘s quieter moments is something that could have come from the mouth of one of the brutal oppressors in Bong’s movie.
In Snowpiercer‘s first act, we’re introduced to Minister Mason, played with comic authority by Tilda Swinton. She’s the representative of the upper classes on the Snowpiercer, a colossal train carrying the last survivors of humanity on a constant journey through a new ice age. While the upper classes live in luxury up front, the huddled lower classes are bundled into a few carriages at the back, munching on gelatinous protein bars and muttering about a revolution.
According to Mason, the passengers’ position in life is preordained by Wilford, the unseen creator of the train and its ‘divine’ perpetual-motion engine. The lower classes moving up to the upper class carriages, Mason smugly says, would be like her wearing a shoe on her head instead of a hat. It’s a superbly eccentric performance from Swinton, and exemplifies Bong’s spiky mix of caricaturish humour and brutal darkness.
Among the repressed lower classes, there’s Curtis (Chris Evans), who’s being groomed for leadership by the aged Gilliam (John Hurt). Sick of the squalor and deprivation at the back of the train, they formulate a plan to rush the heavily-armed guards that protect the carriages ahead of them, and capture Wilford’s engine room at the front.
Gathering up an army of similarly disgruntled proles, including Jamie Bell’s teenage Edgar, Octavia Spencer’s mother-turned-warrior Tanya and Ewen Bremner’s wild-eyed Andrew, Curtis formulates a violent uprising, aided by drug-addled security expert Minsu (The Host’s Song Kang-ho) and his similarly addicted daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung).
Bong’s large-screen rendering of the French graphic novel is bold and often breathtaking. He captures the clutter and squalor of the underclass carriages with all the murky, shadowy beauty of Van Gogh’s famous painting, The Potato Eaters; we can almost smell the fetid stench of this rolling prison. Bong’s use of stylistic flourishes – all weird, retro-future speaking devices and blasts of incongruous music – owes a debt to the puckish humour of Terry Gilliam and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and the director certainly doesn’t hide his admiration for those cinematic eccentrics.
As Curtis and his army of revolutionists emerge from their squalor and into the previously unseen world that lies in the incalculable number of cars in front of them, we share their sense of wonder: Bong allows his imagination to run riot here, and some of the things that await them are beautiful and eerie. Yet Bong uses his flights of fancy to leaven what is otherwise a bloody and barbaric insurrection. There’s more than a hint of Ken Levine’s Bioshock, in fact, to Snowpiercer’s second half, in its blend of satire, imagination and sheer savagery.
It’s a heady concoction, but the performances from the international cast consistently slice through the mix. Chris Evans’ turn is arguably the best we’ve seen so far; he’s conflicted, haunted, yet seemingly driven forward by his own sense of outrage, and Evans portrays all this with little more than the tilt of his head or a resolute gaze. It’s to Evans’ credit that he can share scene after scene with the dignified, perfectly restrained John Hurt and still emerge as a magnetic, watchable lead; the film stops once for a character-building monologue from Evans, and it’s an extraordinarily powerful moment. It’s disturbing, in fact, to think that this could have been one of the scenes marked for deletion by the Weinsteins.
If there’s a fault with Snowpiercer, it’s that Bong lets the violence run away from him in the final act. A series of repetitive and wearying fights bog down what is otherwise a revelatory and moving conclusion, and while there’s little we’d want to see trimmed out of the movie, it’s certainly arguable that the final third meanders on for a little too long.
Despite this, Snowpiercer emerges as a gripping and thought-provoking genre film. Many of its elements are familiar from other sci-fi dystopias – most obviously George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four – but they’re put to powerful use here. Snowpiercer begins as a film about class and social order, but quickly becomes something else: a meditation on humankind’s universal capacity for selfishness and cruelty.
Exciting, blackly comic yet threaded with a sharp sense of despair, Snowpiercer is a decisive, brilliantly-made film. Its images and performances thrill in the moment, but best of all, they leave an icy imprint on the imagination long after the film rattles to a close.
Snowpiercer‘s UK release date has yet to be announced. When we get one, we’ll be sure to pass it on.
UPDATE: This review was updated to clarify the point about Neil Gaiman in the opening paragraph.
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