My god, has this been an amazing year for films or what? Just when I thought that Edge of Tomorrow had a monopoly on great sci-fi this summer, out comes the blisteringly violent, mercilessly satirical, and deeply resonant Snowpiercer to give it a run for it’s money. Making a top 10 list this year is going to be nearly impossible.
Snowpiercer takes place in 2031. Humanity has been all but completely whipped out by an attempt to stop global warming that ultimately caused the opposite problem, the world has now been entirely frozen over into a hellish tundra. The only bit of humanity that remains are the patrons of a never-ending train ride that circles the globe every year. On the train, a class system has evolved, the rich live in luxury at the front of the train, the poor live in shambles at the back. Curtis (Chris Evans) has had enough of this injustice that reaches as far as disciplinary limb severing and child abductions by the train’s guards. As such, he stages a violent uprising with the help of Edgar (Jamie Bell) a young man he fells responsible for, Tanya (Octavia Spencer) a mother who just lost her child, Gilliam (John Hurt) a wise father figure, and Namgoong (Song Kang-Ho) a gifted, but drug addicted engineer who knows how to access the rest of the train.
What makes Snowpiercer such a rich experience is its complete commitment to its harsh tone. This is not just a totalitarian class system in name only (sorry Hunger Games), but in pure brutality and cruelty. We very quickly come to understand why this uprising is such a necessity, as we see in full detail the physical and mental suffering these people are put through. At the same time, director Bong Joon-Ho has also employed some pretty masterful deconstruction of corporate indoctrination, and class ethics into this story. This balancing act draws heavy influence from directors such as Paul Verhoeven, and comes pretty close to being on equal ground.
The acting here is impeccable. Chris Evans sure has come a long way from being The Human Torch. Here, he gives what is by far his most emotionally varied, and deeply felt performance to date. This is particularly true when he reveals exactly why he is the way he is in an absolutely chilling monologue that is one of the most disturbing speeches I’ve heard in a film. The supporting players are very strong also. The usually one note Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer really get a chance to develop personalities here, and thrive under the great writing. However, the real standout here is Tilda Swinton as Mason, the utterly twisted disciplinary officer. She’s absolutely unrecognizable, and her overly pleasant demeanor provides chilling contrast to the horrors we see before us. This is material that could very easily come off as silly in the hands of lesser actors, but with this amazing ensemble, it all feels naturalistic and earned.
We’re also treated to some of the most magnificently staged and brutal action sequences of the year. Bong is a master of staging, with some amazing set ups that use the visual nature of the train to it’s full potential. In fact, there is one action sequence staged in complete darkness that is a contender for the most stunning action scene of the year. The actors also completely throw themselves into the fights. No CGI here, it’s real people fighting with weapons that make people bleed like crazy (the use of Axes in this film…my goodness), and that only makes the stakes higher. Occasionally the camerawork can be a little shaky for my taste, but that’s just a minor quibble.
The only major stumbling block here is the third act. It just does not come to as satisfying a conclusion as you’d expect from such a wholly engaging film. The dialogue which was once sharp and nimble descends into some fairly cheesy monologuing by our main villain Wilford (Ed Harris) and ultimately everything just wraps up a little too nice and neat. It feels like a very typical sci-fi ending. Also, the movie is definitely just a bit too long. Eventually the structure of the story starts to feel just a touch repetitive and while the stylish action definitely distracts, it cannot fully cure that slight boredom.
Snowpiercer is everything great science fiction should be. It provides a ton of amazing action (the best since The Raid 2) for summer blockbuster junkies, while also enriching the story with deeply satirical, and emotional themes. Even if it ultimately comes to a fairly weak resolution, the journey is completely worth it, and the stellar cast makes every single moment count. A wonderful piece of filmmaking.