I’m sure everyone is expecting a Transformers review, and we’ll have one presently, but we wanted to wait on it a bit… mostly because of the superior film opening opposite it. Snowpiercer deserves your money infinitely more than Michael Bay’s latest boom machine, and thanks to Harvey Weinstein, it’s being dumped without a whisper opposite the biggest movie of the year. Weinstein wanted to recut the ending and now he’s making a point about directors who refuse him. The movie itself – easily one of the best science fiction films of the year – has been unjustly reduced to a chew toy for his ego.
Hollywood squabbles aside, you won’t regret wading through the hordes of people waiting for Optimus Prime in order give this one a look. It starts with an absurdly simple premise, then develops every aspect of it until it blossoms into a fully grown universe. In this case, that means another apocalypse: covering the world with ice and lowering temperatures to lethal levels. Humanity’s only core of survivors now occupies a single long train, powered by an engine that requires constant motion and built as a self-sustaining ecosystem. Naturally, social inequities onboard are as bad as ever. The rich live it up in the front cars while the poor dine on pureed garbage in the back. Revolution comes, as it always does in these scenarios, led by a quiet malcontent (Chris Evans) who needs to fight his way car by car in order to reach the engine.
Director Bong Joon-ho has earned quite a reputation with earlier films like Mother and The Host. Here, it scores him an A-list cast, including Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spenser and Ed Harris (as well as stalwart Korean regular Song Kang-ho). They act as our guides as we move through the various layers of the train, punctuated by shocking violence as the powers-that-be fight back. The straightforward outline supports a gorgeously realized universe, sandwiched inside those metal cars and strung together like a pearl necklace. Bong adds plenty of surprises along its length, which he preserves by keeping us focused on Evans’ revolutionary the whole time. He’s never been out of the squalid ghetto in back, and the shocks of every new layer are as new to him as they are to us. It lends him a natural affinity, as well as providing an easy way to craft a story simply by showing us what’s in the next car.
Bong makes it look so easy, even though the material (based on French graphic novel) could go wrong a thousand times or more along the way. The obvious social commentary and point-and-click development scream for a slap-dash director more interested in cheap product than making anything worth seeing. But Snowpiercer finds a way not only to revel in the larger implications about our savage nature, but to do so in the context of a wildly inventive action film to boot. It gives much thought to those pesky little questions that other films view as obstacles. What happens when mechanical parts on the train wear out? Wouldn’t the conditions outside be too dangerous to risk conflict? Bong considers all of them very carefully, then turns them into awesome plot twists rather than the nuisances a lesser director would treat them as.
I say “fun” and it certainly can be that, though it never comes at the expense of the intensity that made his earlier films so compelling. Every frame drips of desperation, of a world on the verge of extinction and struggling mightily to change its tune before the lights go out. Bong never flinches from the story’s dark corners, but neither does he let that stop his mischievous wit from coming through. As a result, the film becomes everything we want a science-fiction story to be, with the same mixture of crowd-pleasing thrills and more thoughtful social commentary that the likes of District 9 displayed with ease. Snowpiercer makes a strong case for joining their ranks, one that won’t get any weaker no matter how many blockbusters they throw in its way. In a just world, it would have a proper marketing drive behind it, along with a release date that gives the audience a chance to discover it. As it stands, we’ll have to do it the slow and painful way: one fan at a time. Thankfully, the film itself won’t let us down in that department. Seek it out and give it a look, then tell us that we’re wrong.