This is a second opinion. When you’re done reading this review, you should totally go read Starshine’s review.
Snowpiercer, the first English language movie by Bong Joon-ho (late of The Host and Memories of Murder) is a movie I’ve been anticipating for over a year now. I first saw the trailer for it in June of 2013 and given that I was just coming off another Korean director’s English language debut (Park Chan-wook’s Stoker, which is still one of the best films of 2013 and who not coincidentally produced Snowpiercer) I was pretty freaking pumped. Not that it’s been easy to stay excited; Joon-ho got into a very public fight with the Weinsteins over cuts they wanted him to make and they’ve been shamelessly delaying its US release like it’s a Terry Gilliam movie. (And on that note: Terry. Zero Theorem. US. Now. It’s not funny anymore.) But it’s finally here and so the minute it hit a theater within an hour of me, I immediately shot out to see it.
And frankly, I could not be more satisfied. Snowpiercer is not only instantly the best movie I’ve seen all year, but also the kind of great movie that will color my viewing of every other movie I see all year. Every arty drama will have to work overtime to match the intelligent writing, great world building and well crafted metaphors, while every action blockbuster will be struggling to match it’s visceral action and emotional stakes. This one is the real deal folks.
The plot, based on an obscure French graphic novel, takes place nearly 20 years into the future. In an effort to combat global warming we released a chemical into the atmosphere to cool the planet. It worked, but perhaps a tiny bit too well as the end result is the entire planet is frozen over. The only survivors of humanity live on a train that constantly circumvents the globe, and the closer you live to the front of the train, the better off you are. The story follows Curtis Everett (Chris Evans), one of the people who lives in the oppressed rear cars, as he leads a rebellion to the front of the train to try and capture the engine, aided by drug addicted security expert Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho).
Of course those clever members of the audience have probably already grasped why the train is a great setting for an action movie. It allows for seamless rising and falling action in the tension, with the stakes and enemy resistance rising the farther forward they get, with breaks each time they traverse an empty car or have to spend time breaking into the next one. And all that is true, but I was amazed with how inventive the director managed to get with what amounts to an extended series of close quarters brawls in a tight environment.
The action is bloody and visceral in all the right ways, and it fits with the movie’s dark tone. It also gets how to make the train’s setting work with its action beats, with tunnels and obstacles on the track factoring into the way the fight goes. It’s all well shot and edited, like the rest of the movie, and while the choreography is chaotic, it’s intentionally so, reflecting its untrained participants, and it’s always easy to tell what’s happening and who has the upper hand. It’s also got some truly great sound design, like in one action scene where the sound emphasizes the violence without overwhelming the soundtrack.
There are a lot of elements that make Snowpiercer as great as it is, but one element that stands out to me is it’s absolutely peerless world building. Ideas like people taking it as writ that certain items (like cigarettes and bullets) are ‘extinct’ or a punishment that involves locking someone’s limb out in the freezing cold until it can be, ahem, removed, arrive on screen fully formed. It allows the world to feel real and alive without needing to stop the movie for tedious exposition, meaning the movie can focus on it’s action and characters.
It’s also got some truly great acting; Evans is giving one of the best performances of his career, subtle and dark in all the right moments, but still willing to slam on the gas pedal when needed. Song Kang-ho is similarly great, if a tiny bit quieter, even if the movie can’t decide how much he needs his translator macguffin. They’re both assisted on all sides by a laundry list of great actors (Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, Ed Harris) and one of the best screenplays of the year. Yeah the poverty metaphor is really on the nose, but unlike say, Elysium, it never sacrifices logic for the metaphor and never once becomes preachy.
I’m honestly having trouble coming up with criticisms. I guess the ending is on the bleak side and might be a tiny bit open ended, but neither of those things bother me in the slightest. Oh, here we go: It occasionally appears that Namgoong’s daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung) has psychic powers, but they basically disappear by the end of the second act and how they work or where she got them from is never explained. There, I have a complaint.
There are other things I want to praise, like a couple of brilliantly telegraphed and set up third act twists or how well the movie gets its limitations, but all you truly need to know is this: Snowpiercer isn’t just a great movie, it’s a great movie that reminds me why I love movies. Even if every other movie this year fails to live up to it, the fact that Snowpiercer exists will keep my spirits up. I honestly cannot recommend it enough. In fact, why are you still reading this? Stop reading my review and go watch Snowpiercer.
Elessar is a 24 year old Alaskan born cinephile and seriously, close this review and go find a theater playing it.
– great action
– incredible screenplay
– fantastic world building
– good acting
– ambiguous/bleak ending
– Yona’s clairvoyance is never explained