Directed by: Bong Joon-ho || Produced by: Park Chan-wook, Lee Tae-hun, Park Tae-jun, Dooho Choi, Robert Bernacchi, David Minkowski, Matthew Stillman
Screenplay by: Bong Joon-ho, Kelly Masterson || Starring: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Go Ah-sung, Jamie Bell, Alison Pill, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris
Music by: Marco Beltrami || Cinematography: Hong Kyung-pyo || Editing by: Steve M. Choe, Changju Kim || Country: South Korea || Language: English, Korean
Running Time: 125 minutes
I first stumbled across Snowpiercer while skimming renowned Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s Wikipedia page. I had been impressed with three of his previous projects, the typical South Korean serial-killer thriller Memories of Murder (2003), the amphibious monster-movie The Host (2006), and the creepy family drama Mother (2009), so I was eager to check out his latest endeavors. Imagine my surprise when I discovered his newest film was an English-language project (while still a South Korean production) premised in a dystopian post-apocalyptic setting starring Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, frequent Bong collaborator Song Kang-ho, and freaking “Captain America” Chris Evans as the lead.
The fact the majority of movie-going audiences recognize Evans as either Captain American or the Human Torch makes his presence in an English-language Korean production directed by Bong and surrounded by an international cast an intriguing pitch for a movie. Throw in a dystopian plot about a failed experiment to end global warming yielding an apocalyptic ice-age, forcing all remaining humanity to take refuge aboard a global super-train, and you’re set for a wacky, cinematic hybrid-adventure.
Snowpiercer continues Bong’s trend of excellent screenplays and solid direction. Although the film could use more prologue or expository dialogue to establish the setting, the film maintains a strong, mature tone composite with reliable visual storytelling. Even the subtle way Evans’ character is introduced, standing defiant as rows of lower class passengers are asked to sit down for roll call, is representative of Bong’s firm direction throughout. Snowpiercer’s (SP) use of set-design, lighting, and general mise-en-scene are great, depicting a wide range of environments and accompanying moods all within one fictional plot-device. Bong’s ability to transition his narrative through all these various stages while the main characters progress through the entirety of the train, tale to engine, is impressive and a clever use of what would in most filmmakers’ hands be a restrictive premise. The way each section of the train is revealed as the main characters fight their way through it makes the discovery process fun, slowly but surely adding substance to the narrative. With its numerous tracking shots in-profile and symbolic blocking, Snowpiercer emphasizes the lateral unfolding of its story and setting.
Although the film is somewhat less action-based than its international trailer would have you believe, there is a fair amount of R-rated violence ranging from good old-fashioned shootouts to medieval-style melees to grimy fisticuffs. The consistent pacing of the action with the introspective character moments is a big strength of Piercer, with Bong often hitting you with hardcore violence when you least expect it, but never when it is inappropriate. There’s a particularly cool sequence shot in the dark featuring night-vision point-of-view angles, and Bong mixes in black humor with the violence a la Save the Green Planet (2003).
Probably the biggest compliment to the writing is how the script’s handling of its primary themes of social stratification and class-warfare is far more sophisticated than something like Elysium (2013), The Dark Knight Rises (2012) or Titanic (1997). While you root for one side over the other, thing’s are more complicated and thus more interesting than a simple rich-people-are-assholes scenario.
SP has a small but interesting collection of underdog characters. The best are Evans’ ragtag leader with a dark past, Song as a sardonic Korean security specialist, and Tilda Swinton as her bread-and-butter archetype, the evil, overbearing British headmistress. None of the cast are spectacular, as the movie’s focus is on the narrative’s thematic content rather than the characters. The film is concept-driven or plot-driven, rather than character-dependent, but the characters are more than colorful enough to service the plot, and Evans is a standout as the lead. It’s an interesting collection of actors from a variety of industries, overall, though I wish Bong gave more of the cast more things to do within its plot-driven structure. Several roles feel like their screentime was reduced from previous edits of the film or even previous drafts of the screenplay. In other words, Bong should’ve bolstered his ensemble with more extensive character development, or cut certain roles altogether.
The only significant problems worth mentioning are the cheap-looking FX of the frozen, post-apocalyptic landscapes outside the train, and a cringe-worthy monologue from Evans near the end of the film. Most of the action takes place indoors in the titular vehicle, so the outdoor FX are not a big deal, but the few shots of the outside world look painfully fake, jarring the transition from the grimy, realistic aesthetic of the indoor train-sets. As per the aforementioned monologue, Evans backstory is meant to be shocking once revealed, but it comes across as melodramatic and silly, and is something that should be shown, rather than recited through awkward dialogue.
Taken as a whole, Snowpiercer is a vibrant science-fiction action-piece. It doesn’t begin or end things spectacularly, but the vast majority of its story is a darkly fun time. I didn’t know what to expect from such an odd combination of acting, writing, and directing talents, but in the end most everything came together to create a wacky, South Korean English-language adventure. There’s plenty of Korean genre-blending and black of comedy to go along with the international cast and crew, so I reckon most people will be able to appreciate this film. To that end, if you’re the sort who only knows Chris Evans as Captain America, this is a must-see to watch the man take that all-American persona to a much darker realm. Korea does it again… but this time in English!
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Bong makes smart use of his screenplay’s premise and set-design to create a totally believable environment, one that’s beautiful and weird at the same time. The diverse action set-pieces are mixed with this hypothetical scenario extremely well. The dark comedy undercurrent is also appreciated.
— However… the narrative could have used more exposition at the beginning, such as an extended prologue scene to better introduce the post-apocalyptic concept and explain what the hell is happening (i.e. better explain the diegesis). A non-insignificant portion of the film’s ensemble cast feel like missed opportunities. The ending merely suffices instead of impressing, and the outdoor shots need work.
? Is eating protein blocks made of insects that horrifying? Doesn’t half the world’s population eat bugs as part of their regular diet already?
Looking forward to it 😀
It’s an interesting one. Definitely what I would qualify as an “international film.”