Director Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer is a triumphant, smart, and terrifically original post-apocalyptic sci-fi epic. Fans of films like Brazil, Blade Runner and The Matrix owe it to themselves to catch it on the big screen if at all possible. As a film that both inherits time-honored archetypes of its chosen genre and carves out its own distinctive identity, Snowpiercer is of a piece with Bong’s earlier work. Across the 2000s, he established himself as one of the most inventive and talented South Korean filmmakers of his generation. In particular, 2003’s Memories of Murder and 2006’s The Host were masterful renovations of archetypal pulp narratives (a noir police procedural and a Godzilla-esque kaiju smash-em-up, respectfully), hitting all the right beats for genre fans while transcending or spectacularly subverting cliches. Perhaps even more impressively, his storylines effortlessly incorporate clever but withering sociopolitical commentary, often manifested as dark humor.
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Producers: Jeong Tae-sung , Lee Tae-hun, Steven Nam, Park Chan-wook
Writers: Bong Joon-ho , Kelly Masterson, Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, Jean-Marc Rochette
Cinematographer: Hong Kyung-pyo
Editors: Steve M. Choe, Kim Changju
Music: Marco Beltrami
Cast: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ko Ah-sung
Country: South Korea/USA/France/ Czech Republic
US Theatrical Release: June 27, 2014
US Distributor: The Weinstein Company
With Snowpiercer, an American co-production written and acted largely in English, Bong seems poised to find greater international recognition. The film features marquee names like Captain America himself Chris Evans, Ed Harris, John Hurt and, in a show-stealingly malevolent performance, Tilda Swinton (although Bong also brings along a couple of excellent South Korean actors he’s worked with before, Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung ). But none of the director’s fierce intellect or stylistic savvy have been lost in his bid towards a Hollywood audience--Snowpiercer is a triumphant display of Bong’s talents, showcasing his knack for lengthy, intense, and carefully constructed setpieces, his remarkable visual flair, and his acute political wit.
The film takes place entirely within the world of Snowpiercer, a perpetually moving train that was once part of a global warming prevention experiment gone awry. Now, with the earth encased in ice and virtually uninhabitable, the human race’s sole survivors have spent seventeen years traversing the global tundra on Snowpiercer’s planet-spanning track, afraid to freeze to death should they try to escape. In this time, the divisions between passengers in different cabins have solidified to form a cruel, bizarre, and violently enforced caste system.
At once enclosed and expansive, the social universe of the train is expertly crafted, both in its grand design and its fine details. The poor at the rear of the train endure police abuse and live in squalor, dining on cockroaches pressed into ambiguous protein blocks, while the upper classes enjoy sushi, saunas, and even a trendy nightclub. This twisted order is held in place by the cultish charisma of the train’s inventor, Wilford, worshipped by the first-class passengers whom he’s lavished with luxury. The film’s plot is set in motion when a rear-cabin passenger, Curtis (Evans), decides its time for the train’s lower classes to revolt, leading his comrades toward the front of the train in a violent, chaotic, and quixotic bid to upend their world’s brutal hierarchy.
Bong’s greatest asset—perverse as it may sound in an age where most summer blockbusters seem to have swelled into bloated, nearly three-hour spectacles—may be his willingness to go long. His command of mise-en-scene is rivaled by the terrific work he gets from his actors, and Snowpiercer’s duration allows him to pursue scenes that take their time to resolve, that are uncomfortable to watch, that hammer home the same bleak themes, or that initially seem minor and extraneous. It’s to his credit that even amid this loosening of the film’s focus, he never allows the tension to break—instead, these tangents concretize the madly inventive universe he’s created and flesh out the lethal stakes his protagonists are grappling with.
A key character is named Gilliam, surely in honor of Brazil and 12 Monkeys director Terry Gilliam, and Bong's careful yet kinetic direction absolutely echoes those whip-smart, surrealistic dystopias. Yet he’s also possessed of an ability to tread the line between the cerebral and the visceral, rivaling David Fincher at his best—witness the horrifying, exhilarating, and almost unbearably intense scene in which Curtis and his ramshackle band of heroic rebels stumble into a trap and must confront an army of axe-wielding mercenaries hell bent on massacring their entire group.
The film’s only significant stumble comes at the dawn of its final act, as Wilford (Harris) arrives to deliver a villainous extended soliloquy whose many twists and revelations oddly fail to make much of an emotional impact (not a slight on Harris’ fine performance so much as on the screenplay’s clumsy juggling of multiple denouements). But this flawed penultimate sequence is neatly erased by the spectacular final moments, in which Snowpiercer deposits its characters—at least, those who survive—into a breathtakingly vast and unknowable future. The stunningly expansive and fully imagined claustrophobia of the film’s first two hours suddenly evaporates, yielding an uneasy respite tinged with hard-earned yet deeply uncertain hope. This discomfiting climax is a perfect fit for one of the year’s strangest, darkest, and most intricately inventive films. Bravo.