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Review: Snowpiercer

July 21, 2014

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Snowpiercer Poster

When talking about the the sheer spectacle and mayhem on display in Snowpiercer, someone describes it as “a blockbuster production with a devilishly unpredictable plot,” and late in the game this becomes the perfect description of South Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s latest epic.

After months of anticipation, Snowpiercer finally opened at the TIFF Bell Lightbox over the weekend, and I’m pleased to announce that it’s one of the best movies of the year.  This is a fascinating and exhilarating piece of visionary science fiction filmmaking that provokes thought and keeps us glued to the edge of our seats, right up to the breathtaking final scene.

The year is 2031, and most of the human population is extinct due to a failed experiment to reverse global warming.  Temperatures have dropped so low that the entire Earth has frozen and become uninhabitable, with the remaining human population circling the planet onboard a massive train.  The rich ones live at the front controlling the engine, with the poorest people being relegated to the back where they are treated like dirt, under the stern watch of Mason (Tilda Swinton).

But a group of revolutionaries from the final car, including leader Curtis (Chris Evans), his young friend Edgar (Jamie Bell), fiercely protective mother Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and their unofficial patriarch Gilliam (John Hurt), have plans to take over the train.  This means fighting their way to the front and facing new adversaries in every car, relying on security expert Namgoong Minsoo (Song Kang-ho) and his daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko) to open the doors, who seek only hallucinogenic drugs made from industrial waste in return.

The use of this train to introduce metaphors of classism and the rift between the rich and the poor, who are world’s apart but often only steps away, is simply ingenious.  Every section has its own unique visual style, from the carefully detailed steampunk look of the final car, to the garish affluence of the other passengers that is revealed as they get farther along the train.  These scenes sometimes resemble what The Hunger Games might look like on acid, and both in style and themes, Snowpiercer also has shades of everything from The Cabin in the Woods to the work of Terry Gilliam.

But Snowpierecer still manages to feel blindingly unique, surprising us at every turn.  From the darkly beautiful cinematography, to the expertly choreographed action sequences and propulsive editing that ties everything together, this is one of the most spectacular and brilliantly realized science fiction films in recent memory.  There are countless scenes here that reach a level of visual poetry, including a fight with axes that is seen through night vision goggles as the train rockets through a tunnel and is plunged into darkness, before a live flame is introduced to give us fiery flashes of the carnage on display.

Although distributor Harvey Weinstein controversially planned to cut his standard twenty minutes from Snowpiercer for this theatrical release, we should all be thankful that director Bong Joon Ho’s vision ultimately won out in the end.  This is just such a tightly wound experience that I honestly don’t know what scenes could have been left out, as every little element and detail ties together, with a nonstop sense of tension coursing through its veins.

The uniformly excellent performances are also a big part of this success, and Chris Evans is simply stunning in the leading role.  As we already know from his work as Captain America, he really rocks the scenes of fighting and hand to hand combat, and Snowpiercer incidentally features some of the best action sequences since The Winter Soldier earlier this year.  But the actor also excels during the quieter character moments, and the way his performance changes with a story that he tells near the end of the film really blew me away, as we watch this action star become deeply bruised and broken.

This all adds up to something mesmerizing, a mix of seamless choreography and haunting imagery, all underscored by powerful allegories on humanity and where we could be headed as a civilization.  But it’s the train itself that becomes the perfect analogy for the constant forward momentum of Snowpiercer, an across the board triumph that manages to be disturbing, wildly entertaining and impressive on every imaginable technical level.  I already can’t wait to watch this one again.

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