Director: Bong Joon-ho
Writers: Bong Joon-ho, Kelly Masterson (screenplay), Jaques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, Jean-Marc Rochette (graphic novel)
Stars: Chris Evans, Kang-ho Song, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton
Release date: June 27th, 2014
Countries: South Korea, USA
Running time: 126 minutes
Best part: The alluring visuals.
Worst part: The heavy-handed final minute.
More often than not, Hollywood refuses to make the right choice. The big-name studios, pushing us into theatre, hire major players to stand in front of, and behind, the camera. However, forced to follow a formula, these studios end up bullying these people beyond belief. Unfortunately, foreign directors suffer the worst of this atrocious behaviour. Despite the critical acclaim, Korean directors including Park Chan-wook and Kim Jee-woon had to fight to keep their big-budget efforts alive.
Gracefully, without ruffling anyone’s feathers, one Korean export took it upon himself to make this year’s best action extravaganza. Bong Joon-ho (The Host) is yet another three-name filmmaker currently working under Tinseltown’s bright lights. His first Hollywood feature, Snowpiercer, looks like a tiresome and cliche-driven post-apocalyptic actioner. However, after entering the theatre, you’re taken on a revelatory journey unlike any other. This year, we’ve seen several blockbusters rise and fall quicker than expected. As Snowpiercer illustrates, the smallest projects are pulling people back into Hollywood’s firing line. Guided by stark visuals and touching moments, the narrative transitions instantly from obvious to transcendent. The premise, despite anchoring this enjoyable action-thriller, highlights its glaring agenda to an extraneous extent. Based on a French graphic novel, the story examines a desecrated Earth on the brink of oblivion. To combat global warming, the world’s governments banded together to release a specific chemical into the atmosphere. Sadly, because these forces ignored the signs, the chemical caused a destructive ice age. The world’s last-surviving citizens now live on a globetrotting train called, you guessed it, Snowpiercer. Developed by mysterious benefactor Wilfred (Ed Harris), the train divides its inhabitants to conserve the status quo.
Ambitiously, Snowpiercer has several points to prove. With its angry side ever-so-slowly taking over, this daring and resonant sci-fi actioner utilises everything to its full potential. The narrative centres around a revolt, driven by the lower-class folks subjected to the train’s tail end. Covered in dirt and dour memories, leader Curtis Everett (Chris Evans), second-in-command Edgar (Jamie Bell), and age-old prophet Gilliam (John Hurt) empower their fellow “Freeloaders” with dignity and respect. The narrative, like the train itself, runs on the hopes and dreams of everyone involved. Following a hearty formula, Joon-ho’s most expansive effort yet is far more exhilarating and prescient than expected. Despite Bob and Harvey Weinstein’s controversial cuts, the movie flows naturally from one revelation and set-piece to another. Pointing at global warming, race relations, and social issues, Snowpiercer bolsters its agenda with profound motivations and charming surprises. Cleverly, its points are summed up by a witty speech about shoes and hats. As our crew shuffles through the train, the narrative conquers its momentous twists and turns before reaching the heartbreaking finale. From the opening frame, without derailing Joon-ho’s immaculate execution, the movie throws in clever intricacies designed to raise the stakes. Bullied by middle-class guards and arrogant socialites (led by Margaret Thatcher-esque ruler Mason (Tilda Swinton)), our lower-class warriors come off as empathetic more so than reckless. In fact, unlike most summer tentpoles, “F*ck yeah!” moments and emotional pay-offs come thick and fast throughout.
“You know what I hate about myself? I know what people taste like. I know babies taste the best.” (Curtis (Chris Evans), Snowpiercer).
Given free reign over everything, Joon-ho has taken several chances with this meaningful and touching post-apocalyptic bloodbath. Paying homage to his favourite directors and dystopian features, this foreign director delivers seminal references without catering to anyone else’s desires. Further more, this story swerves around several blockbuster cliches. Avoiding a massive scope, over-long set-pieces, and manipulative beats, Joon-ho’s style is of an entirely different species of filmmaking. Like the train’s never-fail, perpetual-motion engine, this auteur is a well-oiled machine keeping everything together. In particular, his visuals speak to critics, Korean film fans, and blockbuster nutcrackers. Within the first third, the grimy tail-end becomes a rage-fuelled character in itself. With small beds, tin cans, and gelatinous blobs coveting the screen, the opening scenes construct the vacuous hell-hole our heroes call home. Indelibly, it’s in the first act – after drug-addled engineer Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) and his psychic daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung) are recruited – that our characters discover the first-class passengers’ dastardly schemes. Righteously, our talented performers take control of this intensifying narrative. Handing the physical and dramatic aspects, Evans displays his polished skill-set throughout. In addition, Octavia Spencer, Bell, Harris, and Swinton anchor the film’s more impressionistic tangents in well-crafted roles.
Unsurprisingly, this project was met with questions from every studio executive it came across. The premise, attacking the first world’s obsession with celebrity and order, is as repulsive as the second act’s blood-stained axe-fights. However, resting on its writer/director’s strength and intelligence, the final product is more satisfying than most action flicks of its type. It might even cause a revolt against the Transformers-hocking big-wigs in their ivory towers. Maybe. Hopefully.