Monday, July 14, 2014

Snowpiercer review

The sci-fi genre has been around for ages, but I would argue that we've seen more great sci-fi films in the last decade or so than we have in any other stretch of time (excluding the late 1970's and early 1980's, when Star Wars, Blade Runner, ET and Brazil were released). Inception, Gravity, Edge of Tomorrow, The World's End, Super 8, Avatar (I don't love it, but a lot of people do), District 9, Star Trek- the list goes on and on. And now, I believe that we can add another title to that list. Snowpiercer is a beautiful piece of cinema, a rousing action spectacle and a compelling political film that is as entertaining as it is disturbing. The performances are stellar and the storytelling is brilliant. Director Boon Jong-Ho hits it out of the park with this film. It's one of the best films of 2014.

One of the coolest things about Snowpiercer is that it drops you right into the action. There's a little bit of exposition about the catastrophe that caused the demise of Earth, but other than that, there is very little set-up in general. The basic story is that, because of global warming, mankind released this gas into the air to cool down the Earth. Unfortunately, it backfired and a new ice age began. The only humans that survived were put on a giant train, which is set on a track that circumnavigates the Earth. The rich passengers are in the front of the train and the poor passengers are stuck in the back. This is where we jump in.

Curtis (Chris Evans) is a passenger in the tail section. He is undeniably the leader of the tail section and he is preparing for a revolution. His mentor and father figure, Gilliam (John Hurt) has planned this uprising with him for years and the revolt is about to begin. The tail section passengers are oppressed by the front and are often brutally punished. Curtis, Gilliam, Edgar (Jamie Bell) and Tanya (Octavia Spencer) plan to lead the passengers to the front of the train, where they will seize the engine from Wilford (Ed Harris), the owner and operator of the train. Curtis and friends execute the plan, but the disturbing nature of life on the train is slowly revealed as they make it to the front.

In a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, director George Miller detailed his plans for the upcoming Mad Max: Fury Road. He described the film as an extended chase scene, where the characters are slowly revealed throughout the film. That sounds cool, but I'm afraid that Boon Jong-Ho beat him to the punch. Snowpiercer plays like an extended action scene most of the time and the only time it really slows down is for some of the best character moments I've seen in a film all year. This film begins with a revolution, which is quite the gutsy move. Most films like this would begin with about an hour of exposition about how terrible life is for the people in the train before the action begins. Not Snowpiercer. This film conveys all of that in twenty minutes. We see the suffering. It doesn't get beaten over our head, but we understand that life is awful for these people. We also get a feel for the characters. We understand their motives and their emotional struggles. All of this is done in twenty minutes. What brilliant filmmaking.

After that, the action begins and the film just doesn't stop. I would go into more details on what happens once the revolution starts, but that would ruin the fun. All I really need to say is that Snowpiercer is one of the best films of the year, a sci-fi film that makes you think while also wowing you with spectacle. It's disturbing, it's interesting, it's even darkly funny at times. Snowpiercer is simply a spectacular piece of cinema and it's one that will surely be remembered for a long, long time.

In spectacle-driven sci-fi films, you rarely see great performances. Snowpiercer changes that trend for the better. The acting in this film is incredibly brilliant. Chris Evans is the lead in this film and he is absolutely Oscar-worthy. He has an intensity about him in most scenes, but he's always a character you can relate to as an audience member. Evans also delivers a monologue towards the end of the film that is so haunting and frightening. He totally crushes it. It's the best scene of the movie and I would compare it to Robert Shaw's monologue on the boat in Jaws. It's that good.

Evans kills this performance, but he's not the only actor who turns in a spectacular performance. Tilda Swinton steals every scene that she's in as Mason, an evil representative from the front section. She fully commits to the role and it results in a charismatic, despicable performance. Jamie Bell also gives a fiery performance as Edgar, Curtis' right hand man. And Octavia Spencer has plenty of charisma as Tanya. Also delivering an impressive performance is Kang-ho Song, the Korean actor who plays the rebels' drugged out technical expert. In general, the cast is terrific and they all add a lot to the film.

The performances are great, but all the actors are helped by the terrific script and the brilliant direction of Boon Jong-ho. Seriously, this guy is a thoughtful, visionary filmmaker who has quite a bit to say. I would love to see what he could do with a bigger budget. He directs this film with such an urgency at times and such a meditative calmness at other times. He knows how to make a thrilling action scene and he knows how to do it well. He also knows how to create crisp dialogue that pops off the screen. Unlike Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (still liked the movie, but not as much as everyone else did), the quiet moments are interesting and I was really able to invest in these characters. I haven't seen any of Boon Jong-ho's other films, but I definitely will be checking them out after this one.

The action scenes are very practical, but they all have a creative twist to them. There's very little CGI on the train and most of the action scenes involve close combat. And boy are they thrilling. Seriously, there are some really terrific moments in this film. A massive fight scene between the soldiers for the front section and the tail passengers is brilliant realized and it effectively uses shaky-cam to capture the chaos of the moment. Another brilliant setpiece takes place in a sauna. Typically, I love music to intensify fight scenes, but the fight that takes place in the sauna needs no additional intensity. It is an insane scene from start to finish and is simply extraordinary. I could mention a few others, but I think you get my point.

The technical aspects of this movie are so, so good. This movie cost around $40 million to make, but it looks infinitely better than some Hollywood movies that cost $150 million. Each section of the train has its own distinct look and I wouldn't be surprised to see the production design team get some consideration during awards season. They certainly deserve it. And the cinematography by Hong Kyung-pyo is also splendid. All of the action scenes are captured so well and the film has a grimy look that is enhanced by the camera work. Well done.

Snowpiercer definitely works effectively as a whole, but some of the individual scenes in this movie are amazing. There's a scene in a classroom that took my breath away. It was so well-structured and so horrific that I couldn't take my eyes off the screen. It all builds up to a terrific action beat that blew my mind. Also, the final forty minutes of this film are so completely compelling and so thematically rich. It really raises some deep questions that I found to be entirely interesting. Not to mention the fact that the acting in those scenes is superb and that the writing is even better. Just plain fantastic.

Snowpiercer is without a doubt one of my favorite movies of the year. I rented it on VOD, so thankfully I had a chance to watch it twice. The first time I watched it, I knew I had just seen something special. However, I was a bit thrown off by the structure of the film. I didn't expect the revolution to take place so quickly, but honestly, when I watched the film again, I knew that it worked. You get a little bit of a set-up and then it's time to start the real story. This movie wastes no time and that's what makes it so effective and so memorable. I could nitpick a few things, but I'm not going to. This is a masterpiece of science fiction, a terrific, well-acted film with big, disturbing ideas and a lot of beautiful action. One of the best movies of the year.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.6/10)


  1. Nice review. Is this director someone to watch? What's his next film?

  2. I just caught up with this movie and agree it was brilliant. I would recommend all his other films. The closest to this one is "The Host" which is his version of a monster movie but they're all great