Few films without a firm release date (in most of the world, at least) have inspired as much chatter of late than Bong Joon-ho‘s “Snowpiercer.” The English-language debut of the South Korean mastermind behind “Memories of Murder,” “The Host” and “Mother,” it features an all-star cast and a hefty budget, and was snapped up early on by The Weinstein Company. But after opening in South Korea in August, it’s barely been seen in the rest of the world, with Harvey Weinstein holding the release in the territories he controls until he can cut a reported 20 minutes out to make it more palatable to western crowds. But one location in which Harvey Scissorhands doesn’t hold the rights is France, and the director’s cut opened there this week—appropriate, given that it’s based on a French graphic novel called “Le Transperceneige.” Eager to see what the fuss is about, we hopped on the Eurostar to Paris to check it out yesterday. And Harvey? We wouldn’t touch a frame, because this might be the best pure science-fiction film since “Children of Men.”
The film posits that in the near future, the governments of the world, keen to curb global warming, release a substance called CW7 into the atmosphere, designed to lower temperatures. It works, but too well, reducing the planet to a frozen, uninhabitable wasteland. The only survivors are those on board a train built by eccentric, reclusive transport magnate Wilford. The higher-ups live in luxury, while those with second-class tickets languish in squalor at the back, in fear of Wilford’s soldiers, living off daily rations of grim, gelatinous protein bars of questionable origin. Previous revolts have always been quashed, but the one that Curtis (Chris Evans), a stoic rebel with a dark past, his second-in-command Edgar (Jamie Bell) and wise elder Gilliam (John Hurt) have been cooking up is different: because they’ve found out the location of Namgoong Minsu (Bong favourite Song Kang-ho), the incarcerated, drug-addled security expert who designed the doors of the train.
Unsurprisingly for a film set on a train that never stops, this is a movie of almost constant momentum. Things kick off in the tail section, the revolution’s underway before the end of the first reel, and Curtis and co. (whose ranks also include Octavia Spencer and Ewan Bremner as parents in search of their kidnapped children) keep on pushing to the front without catching a breath. Bong’s screenplay—co-written with “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead” scribe Kelly Masterson—is structured almost like a video game, with each carriage presenting a different world or challenge, complete with end-of-level bosses like Tilda Swinton‘s glorious Victoria-Wood-as-Margaret-Thatcher higher-up Minister Monroe, Alison Pill‘s demented, heavily pregnant schoolmarm, and the enigmatic Wilford waiting at the end.
But the video game comparisons aren’t meant as a knock: it gives the story a singularity of purpose and fierce drive that most modern action movies are missing (and make no mistake: if Bong’s previous films were riffs on the police procedural, the monster movie and the Hitchcockian thriller, this is very much his take on the sci-fi actioner). And the director, with longtime cinematographer Hong Kyung-po, makes the most of his setting, shooting much of the film on only two planes, hammering home how far our heroes have to go and how much they’ve traveled.
And what a setting it is: though we’re restricted entirely to within the train (bar some CGI exteriors, which are sometimes a touch ropey, but are mostly effective), Bong, with particular help from production designer Ondrej Neksavil, builds a remarkably rich, coherent future world. OK, you have to give him a little leeway on the premise itself (how did everyone get on the train? Why a train?), but every environment, from the crammed, slum-like spaces of the tail section to the opulence of the front (which includes an aquarium, complete with sushi bar, and a nightclub), is detailed and stunning.
It’s a handy shortcut to setting up Bong’s world—equal parts “Children of Men” and “Brazil” (it can’t be a coincidence that Hurt’s prophetic, respected elder is called Gilliam), but with its own distinctive feel to set it apart. Occasionally the script ladles on the exposition a little thickly, but otherwise it’s elegant storytelling that can pack a real punch. As ever, Bong deftly melds tones without them clashing, and as with “The Host,” brilliantly adds politics and social realism onto a genre picture.
In many ways, the closest sci-fi forebearer to “Snowpiercer” is Fritz Lang‘s “Metropolis“—this is a tale of have-nots rising up against the haves. But somehow, unlike this summer’s “Elysium,” it never feels tacked-on or heavy-handed; instead, it’s genuinely rousing, even enraging, even while being a film that’s literally about second class battling first class. That’s because it has more to say than simply “there are rich people and poor people,” instead digging into the way that those at the top of society do their best to keep those at the bottom from joining them, and the ways in which the poorest can be complicit in their inertia too. And all the while being an inventive and exciting action film along the way.
And while plenty of great foreign-language directors have come unstuck when working in English, Bong has a great cast assembled here who put in terrific work. Chris Evans’ lead seems underwritten, with the actor’s integrity carrying the part, until you discover the genuinely shocking reason for his taciturn nature and Hero’s Journey refusal-of-the-call, at which point it becomes clear how strong the actor’s work has been all along.
Jamie Bell reminds everyone how likable he can be and Octavia Spencer brings texture to her unlikely action heroine, while Song and fellow Korean star Ko Ah-sung (also his daughter in “The Host“) make a delightful father-daughter double act. And on the side of the devils, Swinton’s creation is wonderfully repellent, and the actor who pops up at the end (revealed in trailers and elsewhere, but we’ll keep it in the abstract for now) does some of his best work in a long while.
We’ll confess that, about midway through, we were wowed by the spectacle, but still wondering whether there was more substance to come, or if it was just going to be a really, really good sci-fi actioner. But the film’s ability to constantly surprise carried through, with some heady ideas rising to the surface in the last act. In some ways, “Snowpiercer” fits the dominant theme of 2013: of survival, and the cost of said survival.
We’re sure Harvey Weinstein has his reasons for wanting to cut the film, but we hope it’s more than wanting a better CinemaScore and more showtimes during the day. Because he has a visionary, thrilling work on his hands, a crystallization of Bong’s status as one of our most exciting filmmakers, and to alter it would be something close to vandalism. [A]