Snowpiercer has arrived as curious anomaly or antidote to the summer movie season. Its cold, dark winter setting makes it seem more appropriate for a holiday season release, and a pointedly grim atmosphere clashes with the sunshine currently widely present outside movie theaters. But a relatively star-studded cast, with at least two Oscar winners and three Oscar nominees, plus two current popcorn-movie leading men, lends some credence to the summer release plan.
Set in the not-too-distant future, with references to an inciting event said to take place right here in 2014, the film tells the story of the last survivors on Earth who have been hauled together on an endless train ride, following a failed attempt to balance out the planet’s climate problems. The train is a microcosm of what’s left of humanity, but also shows the lingering tensions and anxieties of such relationships.
We’re introduced to the lower-class members of the train who are forbidden from moving forward thanks to on-train law enforcement. Occasionally they are addressed by Mason (Tilda Swinton) – a warden of sorts who tries to be somewhat humane to them at times, and maybe has a conflict between what she is doing and what actually happens to the lower-class individuals.
The first scene makes it clear that Curtis (Chris Evans – doing a total 180 from his “Captain America” life) is the ringleader of the rear-class citizens. He and a few friends including Edgar (Jamie Bell) are working to determine a way to get to the front of the train, aided by some assistance from Gilliam (John Hurt) – an older passenger who helped construct the train. A community of families is also evident in the group, with Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and Andrew (Ewan Bremmer) emerging as key representatives from that section of the population.
Because some of the players, Curtis included, have been trapped in the back of the train for so long, they have some misgivings about actually going ahead with their attempt to go to the front of the train. But several incidents and plot developments arrive in quick succession, and so Curtis takes the lead of going off into their unknown. The group quickly learns that they will not have an easy journey and that the train is more complex than any of them could have imagined.
I am impressed that a film like this, which could be summarized as “The Matrix on a train,” attracted such a star-studded cast. While a few performers (John Hurt, Ed Harris) offer variations on similar roles in their past or archetypal roles, others such as Evans and Swinton offer distinctive portrayals very different from previous performances in their filmography. Character distinctions are further highlighted by all of the rear-class citizens having some form of grime and muck on their body, while those closer to the front of the train have flawless skin. This is most sharply realized in a surprise cameo from Allison Pill as a teacher who seems to have a heart of gold, in spite of the circumstances (but does she?)
Director Joon-ho Bong makes his English-language debut with this release, and his Korean roots are evident in the choreography of fight scenes and use of actor Kang-ho Song in a key role. However, several of those same fight scenes take the violent elements longer than American audiences might be used to, and certain plot elements that might be suggested are actually visually explored, thus making the film hard to watch at times. The greater plot element of a class system on a contained environment is notable, and continues to find relevance in the present era.
I felt that same artistry contributed to the success of the film at other times, as in several moody sequences through the lesser-known (to the lower class citizens) areas of the train where ambient noise and active visuals take the place of dialogue, a sudden left-turn moment in a classroom car on the train, and a climactic sequence with a well-known actor appearing as the mastermind behind it all. The dark train ride is occasionally supplemented by beautiful cinematography of an endlessly snow-covered landscape, and the pace of the film does not feel rushed or locked into a blockbuster-style showdown at the end of the story.
I can’t recommend this film with gusto due to the high violent content and several derivative plot elements, but I feel that it will sustain itself as a notable release from this year. It’s great to see the cast members committing to their parts – though Swinton is always memorable in her roles. I particularly hope that the movie continues to stand out on Evans’ filmography, as he capably turns away from the “American Hero” role he’s become known for, and shows more depth and commitment to the part than possibly any other role he has done before.