A confronting think piece wrapped in a bizarre and bloody thrill ride, with Tilda Swinton as a cruel bureaucrat.
July 21, 2014
Dystopian thriller Snowpiercer is a difficult film to categorise. Adapted from a French graphic novel by celebrated South Korean director Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Memories of Murder), it exists at a weird intersection between action film, arthouse movie and genre flick, merging violence with scathing social commentary. Released in Australia on just two screens, it's hard to imagine the film scoring big at the box office, despite the presence of Chris Evans, aka Steve Rogers, aka Captain America. But for anyone who likes their blockbuster with brains, Snowpiercer should definitely be sought out.
The film takes place 17 years after a botched attempt to halt global warming plunged the planet into a new ice age. The last remnants of humanity live aboard an enormous, fast-moving train, perpetually circling the globe. The wealthy elite live at the front of the train, surrounded by the luxuries and comforts of the old world. The rest live in the rear carriages, in squalor and in fear. Evans plays Curtis, the de facto leader of the tail section, who leads his people in a revolt to try take control of the engine.
Each carriage the rebels capture means another new environment, which brings with it new threats and new discoveries. In this way, Bong mirrors the structure of a videogame, allowing him to maintain an arresting sense of momentum. His visuals are expectedly stylish, while the set design is top-notch; the filthy metallic greys of the tail section soon give way to images of increasing extravagance and excess. The train is a microcosm; a reflection of the growing social and economic divide we see in the world today.
The allegory is a grim one, and the violence similarly is uncompromising. Nevertheless, Bong and his co-writer Kelly Masterson inject plenty of moments of black humour. Alison Pill plays a fanatical primary school teacher who reminds her students in a sing-song voice that outside "we'd all freeze and die!" Taking even bigger bites out of the scenery is Tilda Swinton as a cruel, bucktoothed bureaucrat who parrots the party line that "everyone has their place".
In comparison to some of the more over-the-top supporting players, Evans feels rather on the stilted side. He's got the brooding intensity figured out, but struggles with the more emotional stuff — there's one dramatic monologue in particular, towards the end of the film, that may cause unintentional laughter. Thankfully, he's ably supported by a cast that includes John Hurt, Octavia Spencer and Jamie Bell, as well as a regular Bong collaborator Song Kang-so.
The film's ending may throw some people, but then again, that's part of its appeal. A confronting think piece wrapped in a bizarre and bloody thrill ride, the highest praise you can offer Bong's film is that it really is unique.