Country: South Korea, Czech Republic, France, USA
Director: Joon-ho Bong
Writers: Joon-ho Bong
Cast: Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swindon, John Hurt
“Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe.”
Snowpiercer is one of those unexpected joys rarely experienced these days; an original and slightly unhinged film that surprises and confounds at every turning. The awful title alone suggests a daft low budget b-movie, the odd literal phrase seemingly written to suggest a parody, produced for the scraps of inebriated audiences that tune into Sharknado and other such trash. Though few sober people are ever likely to give Snowpiercer a chance, the lack of an inspiring title gives little suggestion of the stylish, eccentric, and creative madness which lies beneath.
Earth has been laid waste by an ecological disaster which has extinguished all life and left the entire planet a frozen and uninhabitable wasteland. The last remnants of humanity survive aboard a train powered indefinitely by a revolutionary engine which continually circuits the interconnected railways of the entire world. On board, a rabble of heavily bearded survivors huddle together in awful conditions, subjected to an oppressive societal structure which has led to a few men to grumble of revolution.
This limited pressure cooker set up has been used a million times before in episodes of TV scifi such as the Outer Limits and Star Trek, and initially promises little more than a competent claustrophobic thriller contained within a limited and economical set. Somehow, against all the odds, this rather tepid looking genre film quickly moves into top gear and opens up into a pulsating action fest bursting with wild and chaotic ideas.
Directed and written by Korean maestro Joon-ho Bong it is not surprising to find many of the same ingredients which make the world of Korean cinema so vibrant and fresh. The characters are a familiar eclectic cast of grim faced thesps, detached loners, and oddball maniacs. The screen play is explosively creative and eccentric, utterly unafraid of how strange it may seem.
Combining a grim and depressing reality with bizarre twists of dark comedy, and of course plenty of over-stylised violence. Also Korean in its influence the dialogue shifts almost effortlessly from over-wrought philosophical soliloquies and melodrama, to bouts of silly dark humour.
There are strong performances all-round from the eclectically ranged international cast, with Chris Evans (Captain America) and Jamie Bell leading the revolution, supported by an array of dream team international actors. John Hurt and a few other old timers add an unexpected level of gravitas but it is Tilda Swinton who manages to steal the show with one of the most bizarre turns we’ve seen as a creepy buck toothed bureaucrat with a broad Yorkshire accent.
Based on a French graphic novel there is an unmistakable comic book influence to the fast paced story, yet much of the quirkyness and characterisation leans more towards Japanese manga than its European roots. There is also an unmistakable influence from Terry Gillingham’s futuristic visions shining through, most obvious in Swinton’s character who could have been pulled straight out of Brazil.
The imagery is beautifully stylistic, full of entirely unexpected invention and memorable set pieces. There are one or two moments of pure action which allow Bong to fully indulge in Asian epic lighting and choreography which will have you jumping out of your seat with excitement.
Despite Snowpiercer raising itself well above all expectations there is still an unavoidable element of silliness to its nature which perhaps prevents it from becoming a true classic of the ages. Its comic book origins lay on the central metaphor with a very heavy and – in the end – clumsy hand. But it never takes itself entirely seriously enough for this to be too much of a problem.
By exhibiting such inventiveness and craftsmanship, while remaining amusing and endlessly exciting, Snowpiercer is very much a must see movie in need of much love.
VERDICT: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED