“Is it time?”
When talk surrounding the US release of Kar Wai Wong‘s The Grandmaster erupted in controversy about a truncated cut from the Weinsteins, cinephiles across the nation couldn’t help but let depression set in. Even so, no one could have been surprised by the decision because Harvey Scissorhands likes to streamline story for action whenever he can to trick American audiences into seeing a foreign film they wouldn’t otherwise care about. So when the same rumors started swirling around Joon-ho Bong‘s Snowpiercer, you had to fear for the worst. Luckily the Weinsteins blinked in this instance, but that turnaround isn’t the shocker. After finally catching it myself, I find it hardest to believe they would consider excising one high-octane second at all. It’s 80% English, wall-to-wall carnage, and one of the wildest rides you’ll see in theaters this year.
Adapted from the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, begun in 1982 by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette (writer Benjamin Legrand completed the tale after Lob’s death in 1990), Bong and co-writer Kelly Masterson‘s Snowpiercer is a sci-fi, post-apocalyptic actioner that could easily be categorized as The Raid meets Oldboy with a bit of Hunger Games dystopia thrown in. Set entirely inside a monumental locomotive housing a closed ecosystem propelled by the perpetual-motion engine at its front, each car between it and the tail enforces a steadily progressing hierarchy of class. The visionary (Ed Harris‘ Wilford) who made such a vehicle possible—humanity’s salvation after a failed attempt to combat global warming left Earth uninhabitable underneath a new Ice Age—assumedly sits as a God in luxury while the poor and helpless are packed like sardines at the back.
We hear snippets of newscasts to set the scene, reading a few lines of text to place us seventeen years after Wilford’s creation came online once the camera settles on a new tail section rebellion’s admiral and general in Chris Evans‘ Curtis and Jamie Bell‘s Edgar. Dirtied, cramped, and forced to eat gelatinous protein bars every day for sustenance, they bide their time until the moment to strike arrives. Secretive messages are sent from an unknown ally farther down the train, feeding them information so that old man Gilliam (John Hurt) may one day supplant Wilford on the backs of Curtis and the others. Desperation is in the air like a cloud, children are measured and taken away by a yellow-jacketed elite (Emma Levie), and justice is brutally wrought by the unbothered Mason (Tilda Swinton) and her cronies.
The time inevitably comes and with it the video game style action of The Raid. Each train car holds a new challenge with escalating danger and a take-no-prisoners attitude in as far as no actor being held above the story where life and death are concerned. Curtis enlists a Kronol drug addicted former engineer named Nam (Kang-ho Song) to open each electronic door, paying him with the rocket fuel-like substance to do so while also allowing his daughter to be freed from the same prison he was found. She (Ah-sung Ko‘s Yona) provides a bit of unexplained clairvoyance to at least prepare the rebels for what’s to come at each checkpoint, but even that can’t save the majority of fighters when an ax-brandishing hoard turns out the lights to mow them down with relish.
Alongside Bong’s elegiac direction of the frenetic action in many uncut fight sequences a la Chan-wook Park‘s (who serves as producer here) Oldboy‘s infamous hammer pan, a lot of credit must be given to art director Stefan Kovacik and set decorator Beata Brendtnerovà for creating unforgettable locales that somehow appear expansive despite their claustrophobic dimensions. The computer effects leave a lot to be desired whether through views of the protein bars’ ingredients or the bright, icy wasteland outside the train’s windows, but everything physical is cinematic magic. Images of an aquarium car with fish swimming behind glass around the walls and roof, the opulence of a Victorian-esque sitting room with inhabitants viewing their intruders with surprise and contempt, and the dim haze of a steam room battle stay burned to your retinas hours afterwards.
And while much of the tone is absurd—Swinton is a delight with eccentric mannerisms, Alison Pill‘s Stepford-y teacher and class a rosy-colored sheen of Hitler youth propaganda—there’s true emotional weight as well thanks to Evans’ severity. His Curtis holds seventeen years of dark secrets that drive him forward to confront the man who has imprisoned he and his kind at the back in squalor. It all comes to a head in a Matrix-like encounter with the architect of utilitarian philosophy above human compassion, testing our hero’s resolve and the reasons for his rebellion to the limit. How many people are still at his side by the end may surprise with the motivating cause of the whole war coming into question as a futile experiment in hope above result. But somehow those in charge never seem fazed.
This is the most comically brilliant piece of all because the idea of superiority and invincibility almost has the elite thinking they’ll win even as the knife cuts into their flesh. Only Curtis and the rebels remember what true freedom is because it was taken from them. The deafening screeching and squeals of the train on its tracks becomes a sort of metaphor for the painful struggle they face; it’s titular ability to demolish any fallen ice in its path a battle cry to aspire towards as they inch closer and closer to the engine room and their chance at salvation. The train therefore becomes a character of its own, a living breathing body to be attacked by this fierce virus cutting through its complacent immune system until reaching the brain. And nothing is quite what it seems.
Rating: R | Runtime: 126 minutes | Release Date: August 1st, 2013 (South Korea)
Studio: CJ Entertainment / The Weinstein Company
Director(s): Joon-ho Bong
Writer(s): Joon-ho Bong & Kelly Masterson / Joon-ho Bong (story) /
Jacques Lob & Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette (graphic novel Le Transperceneige)