World cinema with a North American edge seems to be in high demand these days. South Korea may not be the first country you picture producing a post-apocalyptic action-thriller, but Joon-ho Bong has a hell of a little film here. If the name sounds familiar you may remember his fantastic river monster flick, “The Host”. All the promise he showed with that gem is delivered with “Snowpiercer”. This classic tale of class-warfare soars above its thematic message and with thrills and suspense.
“Snowpiercer” takes place in 2031, seventeen years into a man-made ice age, an unintentional result of humanity’s battle with global warming. The survivors live on the Rattling Ark, a perpetual motion train riding along a globe-spanning track (one year cycle, 400,000 miles of track). Rich in the front, poor in the tail, and Wilford, the savior, running the engine. The tail section is cramped and when they’re not fighting over protein bricks, they’re having their children stolen by the front crowd. We meet Curtis (Chris Evans) and Gilliam (John Hurt) ready to lead a revolution to the front of the train, to gain control of the engine.
“We control the engine, we control the world.”
First and foremost, the performances are fantastic. Chris Evans has proven himself to me many times over as a leading man, and he leads a strong cast here as the violent revolutionary. John Hurt and Jamie Bell are both great in their smaller roles. Tilda Swinton, always a winner, is spectacular as Minister Mason, the front’s ruthless ambassador to the tail. Ed Harris shows up in a crucial scene and is great as per usual. The writing is relatively simple and effective, and allows the cast to remain natural and relatable (except for the psychopaths up front).
Joon-ho Bong is a terrific filmmaker, that’s a given. Here he has the unenviable task of creating a tense action film in an enclosed space. He pulls it off marvelously. The train is a beautifully grimy creation when we first see it, the tail full of too many bodies and not much else. It’s a classic set piece of this kind of film, and it gets more interesting and surreal as the story and rebels move forward toward the head of the train. Of course the decadence and depravity increases as well. The effects for the frozen world outside are good, not amazing, but the film doesn’t rely on the outside world very often which is a plus; instead, keeping the action and tension confined to the cars of the train itself.
“You know what I hate about myself? I know how people taste.”
The film has two minor errors in plot that did bother me. Yona, a young girl helping the rebels move forward, is revealed to be psychic early on. She makes two quick, pointless predictions, and it’s never mentioned again. That struck me as odd. Later, a “big bad” becomes a major threat for our heroes. He’s apparently a psychopath with little concern for who he kills, and he comes out of nowhere. Suddenly, he’s the villain and I can’t even remember when he was introduced.
Putting aside those two small distractions, “Snowpiercer” is just terrific. It delivers thrills, brutal action, and takes a few unexpectedly dark turns. Impressively, “Snowpiercer” manages to handle the class-warfare plot much better than other recent attempts (such as “Elysium”, which wasn’t nearly as good as it should’ve been). Chris Evans carries the film well, and Joon-ho Bong’s direction raises this film above other similar genre-flicks.