Directed by Bong Joon-ho. Starring Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Ko Ah-sung, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, and Ed Harris.
Have you ever walked from the back of a moving train all the way to the front? It’s a straight line path that director Bong Joon-ho turns into a violent, harrowing journey with Snowpiercer. In an alternate present, international attempts to halt global warning using modern technology cause an ice age that kills off nearly all mankind. Seventeen years later what’s left of humanity survives aboard a colossal train that travels non-stop around the Earth. The inhabitants thus are a microcosm of the world they left behind, with the elite at the head of the locomotive and the impoverished living in the tail end. Watching everyone from the engine is the creator of the train, the so-called “benevolent” Wilford.
The poor and working-class have always been the focus of director Bong’s films, so it’s no surprise he starts at the rear section of the train. There we find hundreds upon hundreds living in claustrophobic squalor, all under the brutal watch of armed guards who enter through a series of locked gates to deliver food. Like Blade Runner (1982) or Brazil (1985), the dystopian design of Snowpiercer is painstakingly crafted so that every inch of detail envelopes the viewer. Five minutes is all it takes for the environment to thoroughly establish the oppressive tone and undercurrent of rebellion rising beneath. This is not a film to be watched on a tablet. See it on the largest screen possible, if you can.
The secret uprising to take control of the engine is commandeered by reluctant leader Curtis (Chris Evans) and his right-hand man Edgar (Jamie Bell). This is director Bong’s first English-language film, loaded with a talented international cast that includes Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, and Ewen Bremner. Bong is also shooting outside his native South Korea for the first time but if he’s out of his comfort zone, it doesn’t show. It helps that he has an ace up his sleeve in Song Kang-ho, one of South Korea’s most popular and revered actors. Bong shrewdly casts him in an indispensable role - as security specialist Namgoong Minsu, he’s the only one with the ability to unlock each door that divides the cars on the train. It’s a restrained performance from Song, a departure from the oafish man-child he normally plays in big budget blockbusters. He’s joined here by Ko Ah-sung, who plays his daughter Yona, an endearing relationship the two actors shared previously in The Host (2006).
As Namgoong hacks through the gateways, behind each door await both unknown pleasures and dangers. The third class passengers have spent seventeen years in the tail section with no concept what the rest of the train looks like and the screenplay doesn’t allow the viewer to know either until the film’s midpoint. We cross each threshold the same time Curtis’ group does, sharing their sense of unease as the cars uncover everything from the surreal to the terrifying. The revolt is inevitably met with resistance from an onslaught of guards overseen by Minister Mason, played with comedic zeal by Tilda Swinton. Wearing a prosthetic nose, false teeth, and geriatric eyewear, Swinton is unrecognizable as the boisterous, out-of-touch bureaucrat; she takes what on paper is a base character and turns in an idiosyncratic portrayal that helps give Snowpiercer its unique feel.
The script is generous to all its actors. Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer shine in support while Luke Pasqualino and Vlad Ivanov intrigue with opposing silent performances. That’s another admirable trait of Bong Joon-ho’s work: in-between the mayhem he’ll lower the soundtrack bare when it comes to exploring character. Just before Snowpiercer's final reveal, Bong confidently sets the camera down and allows his two biggest stars - Evans and Song - to have the floor. It's an exhilarating moment as both men speak their minds while seated across from another, illuminating and altering our perception of Curtis and Namgoong. Evans in particular is a revelation in this scene; the astonishing monologue he delivers may be his best work yet.
It’s hard to fathom that Snowpiercer actually premiered in South Korea almost a year ago. Disputes over a proposed edit by distributors The Weinstein Company delayed its international release, but at least North American audiences are going to see director Bong’s intended vision after all. What should have been one of the best films of 2013 will have to settle for being one of the best in 2014 instead.