Sometimes the distribution decisions made by studios are utterly baffling. Take Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s English language debut Snowpiercer for example, which has been available online for nefarious downloaders to watch for quite some time having been released in South Korea and selected other countries about a year ago. Since it first appeared, Snowpiercer has endured fragmented, stuttering distribution elsewhere (particularly with regard to the USA and the UK), meaning that impressive reviews have stacked up and word of mouth recommendations have spread but few people in those areas have actually been able to watch it, legally, on the big screen.
Despite this the movie has already made twice as much as it cost, breaking South Korean box office records last year, but it would surely have been one of the financial successes of 2013 or 2014 had it enjoyed a wider, less-disjointed release and a decent promotional campaign. As widely reported elsewhere, the Weinstein Company secured the North American distribution rights for Snowpiercer a couple of years ago, but Harvey Weinstein fell out with the director after Bong refused to cut his film by twenty minutes or add a prologue and epilogue. Though it was released in the US earlier this summer in its original, intended director’s cut, Weinstein responded by ensuring the movie received a limited art-house release. Thanks largely to those positive reviews it has since been upgraded and has appeared in around 150 American theatres, but that’s still a relatively low number, and it is a shame.
So is all the fuss justified? Well, there’s no denying that this is a taut slice of moody, post-apocalyptic sci-fi, offering a crowd-pleasing number of thrills n’ spills and containing an impressive production design. Set 17 years after a 2014 experiment to halt global warming goes horribly wrong and plunges Earth into a new ice age, a few hundred remaining human survivors reside in a temperature-controlled perpetual motion super-train that continuously circumnavigates the globe at high speed. At the back end of the vehicle are the oppressed have-nots, existing on a diet of protein bars and not much else, while at the front an upper class frolics in relative comfort with easy access to fine food, drugs and leisure amenities. All that separates the two groups is a couple of coaches of axe- and gun-wielding fascist military henchman, put in place to ensure the status quo through brute force, but that doesn’t deter Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) from leading a revolution in order to restore a sense of equality to this unbalanced, delicate society.
Though deftly executed and at times beautifully-realised, Snowpiercer‘s plot is extremely simple (perhaps too simple), the framework recalling left-to-right side-scrolling video games of yore. As Curtis and his rag-tag team of helpers – an impressive international cast of characters portrayed by Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Song Kang-ho, Go Ah-sung and Ewen Bremner, among others – battle their way through the train each carriage effectively acts as a ‘level’, often replete with an end-of-level ‘boss’: Tilda Swinton’s self-serving Minister Mason, Vlad Ivanov’s seemingly-unkillable henchman Franco, Alison Pill as a gun-toting schoolteacher, etc. etc. Bong even goes as far as filming these superbly-choreographed fights side on at times, a move which recalls classic beat-em-ups like Double Dragon; it’s almost certainly a nod to fellow countryman Park Chan-wook, a producer here, who used the same technique in Oldboy.
Naturally at the end of the train there’s a final ‘big’ boss lying in wait for Curtis once he has made it through the various aquarium, nightclub and sauna carriages. (All of which beats my daily commuter train, which is the temporary home for around 400 accountants called Martin and not much else. Not once is Curtis subjected to a jumped-up ticket inspector, either, which seems like a bit of a cop-out to me, and the train doesn’t even get delayed when there are massive snowdrifts on the track. Completely unrealistic!) Here it’s the vehicle’s designer and driver, a god-like overseer named Wilford (played by Ed Harris, who pretty much re-hashes his earlier turn from Peter Weir’s excellent The Truman Show). Curtis learns about the train’s ecosystem and Wilford explains his reasons for establishing a lower and upper class, but several more surprises lie in wait too that will alter the future of humanity.
While the concept – originally seen in Le Transpierceneige, a French graphic novel by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette – is unusual, the themes addressed in the movie are all too familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in this genre. There’s a touch of Soylent Green here, a dash of Logan’s Run there, and you can easily detect basic ideas long-flogged to death by Mad Max, Total Recall, District 9, The Hunger Games, In Time, Gattaca and Elysium, among others. All of these movies have also concerned themselves with a separation between the haves and the have-nots, and nine times out of ten the main protagonist comes from the oppressed masses, but the biggest inspiration for Bong is clearly Terry Gilliam’s dark and manic Brazil (a fact that is surely confirmed by the naming of Hurt’s wizened father figure as ‘Gilliam’).
Despite the long history of class war in sci-fi, and some pretty distinctive envisioning of the future in those movies listed above, the Korean director manages to impose his own distinct visual style on proceedings here. Slow-mo is used well and the fights are choreographed splendidly, although Bong is a director that could surely have made something even weirder if his segment in Tokyo! is anything to go by. That said, and without wishing to spoil too much, there are some delightfully odd moments here, such as a bizarre scene that brings to mind the famous World War I Christmas truce. Additionally, the way that Bong contrasts light and dark areas of the train is impressive, as well as being necessary; in one memorable scene Curtis and his crew are dazzled when they see the outside world – covered in snow, of course – for the first time in 17 years, and in another vicious battle sequence the lights are switched off while the train goes through a long tunnel, with intermittent shafts of light illuminating the bloodshed. Snowpiercer is often a joy to look at, with more and more detail apparent when the action moves to the upper class carriages, and plenty of impressive realisations of the frosty exterior.
As always with science fiction some questions arise when the plot is examined for holes. Considerable suspension of disbelief is required, for example, as more and more of the train is revealed. Where is the accommodation, exactly? We see one or two sleeper carriages in the posh parts, but certainly not enough to house the number of passengers seen in these areas. Where is the food for the rich? Where do they bathe? And so on. Such carriages may of course exist despite not being shown on screen, but as the film wears on the internal logic does not stand up to close scrutiny, and begins to fall apart long before Curtis makes it to the locomotive. The flipside of this, though, is that this Beckettian movie closely resembles a nightmare, where certain unimportant details are ignored so that focus remains on those that are key.
Evans is fine as the stoic, principled, square-jawed hero: your typically-determined muscular leader on a seemingly-impossible quest. He anchors the film while a series of supporting performances threaten to steal the limelight away from him. Bremner’s tortured Andrew is a wild-eyed, raving madman in search of revenge after he is subjected to inhumane torturing, Song shines as the drug-addicted designer of the train who sees the futility of it all, while Pill chews on the scenery as a kind of 1950s Stepford Schoolmarm. Most memorable of all is Swinton’s incredible Mason, a despicably-cruel politician who patronizes the lower class at the back of the train and favours self-preservation above anything else. Swinton plays the character like a Lancastrian Margaret Thatcher, bluntly and arrogantly dismissing those she considers to be beneath her while simultaneously sounding like she has just stepped off the set of long-running British working class soap opera Coronation Street. It’s as admirable as it is bizarre, and she must have had fun with such a caricature.
Such performances – and some impressive special effects – help Snowpiercer to stand out from the crowd. There are a couple of issues with regard to the story that nag away at the viewer, but rare is the sci-fi that manages to pass by unquestioned, and I found it possible – just about – to enjoy this ambitious film despite a few misgivings. Snowpiercer‘s premise is an interesting one and the action is exciting for the best part of its first two acts before (arf) running out of steam in the final third, so it’s easy to overlook the problems in order to (double arf) go along for the ride. Bong provides the big-budget thrills in an assured, confident way, particularly via the strong fight sequences and the shots of crumbling, ice-ravaged cities, and he also manages to create a kind of hazy, dreamlike (or nightmarish) quality as the curtains are slowly drawn back to reveal the opulence of the powerful upper class. Not a masterpiece, by any means, but enjoyable and worth seeing when or if you finally get a chance to do so.
Directed by: Bong Joon-ho
Written by: Bong Joon-ho, Kelly Masterson, Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, Jean-Marc Rochette
Starring: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Go Ah-sung, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Ewan Bremner, Alison Pill
Running Time: 126 minutes