Note: this review will be featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Snowpiercer is one of the best films of 2014, a kinetic, gripping piece of science fiction that’s always involving. Bong Joon-ho establishes himself as one of the brightest talents working behind the camera, a man with the ability to thrill behind character drama alongside violent action that holds meaning. It’s a rare, brilliant mix. The film centers on Earth in 2031, where a failed global warming experiment leads to the world freezing over and all life ceasing to exist. A lucky few boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that travels the world in the span of a year with a growing class divide amongst the citizens onboard. The back of the train is comprised of individuals without money, simply attempting to live in the horrid conditions provided to them. Most of them don’t remember what the outside world looks or feels like: there are no windows, most have been on the train for roughly 17 years (besides the babies born post-apocalypse), and they are fed protein blocks that look like gelatinous blobs of blood. Their lives are full of starvation, hard work, and fighting for survival.
Curtis (Chris Evans) is fed up. He wants to make it to the front of the train to reached the fabled Engine, which somehow keeps the train running at all times. It provides them with water converted from the ice outside and the essentials needed to keep the ecosystem running on board. Along with Edgar (Jamie Bell), a young man born on the train near its inception, and Gilliam (John Hurt), a wise old man without most of his limbs, they attempt to advance past the soldiers and to the front of the train. Others include Tanya (Octavia Spencer), a woman whose child is taken to the front for an unexplained purpose, and Nam (Kang-ho Song), a man addicted to a drug made of toxic waste called Kronol. It’s a highly flammable substance that Nam and his daughter, Yona (Ah-sung Ko), use as currency in exchange for helping the passengers advance through gates. The former developed them himself and the latter is psychic, having the ability to see through the gates to warn them of what’s to come.
There have been other revolts, all failures. The previous insurgents were killed by the guards, something that Mason (Tilda Swinton) often reminds the members of the tail section. She adores Wilford Industries and everything that it stands for, idolizing its creator who lives with the Engine. Wilford is a demigod to the people near the front of the train despite the ridicule and doubt he faced from outsiders for his invention; those people onboard are wealthy and reserved their spots to live just as they used to before the scientific experiment went wrong. Joon-ho instills plenty of commentary within that struggle to emphasize a class divide between rich and poor. It’s riveting. Curtis and Edgar talk about how they forget what steak even tastes like or what their mother’s faces look like. Imagine being denied the simple joys of life, and that is the way they live. While that conflict emerges, there is a fundamental attack on naysayers of climate change and the way that technological advances can backfire on us. The central premise isn’t overly far-fetched considering how far the world is going to combat global warming.
While that may make the film sound heavy, there’s one important element to consider: the film is a blast. The action is staged appropriately and masterfully keeps within the narrow confines of a train. Every room feels as if it’s crafted by a brilliant designer who just so happened to know how thrilling the rooms would be in a film. Snowpiercer kicks ass and uses its characters as vehicles for caring about the action. These are properly defined people who believably live inside this train. They are emotionally ravaged, mentally exhausted, and physically lean. And they are ready to fight for their lives. Evans is great in the lead, particularly in a late moment when he delivers a moving monologue about his first moments on the train. Swinton is impressively unique, too. The action is fast-paced and brutal, with the film remaining uncompromising in what it shows; blood and graphic violence ensue because it needs to in the context of the narrative. Snowpiercer is a unique breed of actioner: it’s a tiny blockbuster set entirely on a train, it’s ridiculously ambitious in narrative scope, and it has a story that makes the audience care. It’s great filmmaking.
Grade: ★★★★½ (out of 5)