Snowpiercer (2013) Review : Sci-fi action goes art-house

Film

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Directed by: Joon-ho Bong 

Written by: Joon-ho Bong Kelly Masterson

Starring:Chris EvansJamie BellTilda Swinton, John Hurt

 What the blurb says: “In this sci-fi epic from director Bong Joon Ho (The Host, Mother), a failed global-warming experiment kills off most life on the planet. The final survivors board the SNOWPIERCER, a train that travels around the globe via a perpetual-motion engine. When cryptic messages incite the passengers to revolt, the train thrusts full-throttle towards disaster”

The reality:  Snowpiercer has yet to be given a UK release date, and spluttered out into U.S. cinemas recently with little fanfare. Indeed, I suspect many of you reading this will fall into the camp of never having heard of it before, despite it’s great cast and a director with real form. I had started to see many tweets appearing about it, lavishing praise on it’s video-game-esque narrative and stunning visual design, some dubbing it the best action film of 2014. When it emerged it was already available on blu-ray from France it made me curious to see what the fuss was about, and I am very glad I did.

The film is set largely in the 2030’s, some 17 years after a climate change disaster left the planet encased in ice and almost every living thing becoming extinct. The Snowpiercer train is the last remaining outpost of human life, circumnavigating the globe endlessly on it’s rickety tracks. Chris Evans plays Curtis, the man who attempts to lead a revolt of the down-trodden and abused occupants of the rear of the train against the privileged occupants who live at the front. Helping him on his way are Jamie Bell as Edgar, a young man who has only known life in the train’s tight confines, and John Hurt’s Gilliam (presumably a nod to Terry), an older denizen of the rear carriages who seems to have a mysterious link to those in charge. Tilda Swinton summons a thoroughly unusual performance as the so-northern-you-can-see-her-whippets Mason, replete with comedic large glasses and false teeth, a woman who communicates the will of the great and mysterious Wilford (a train driving version of the Wizard of Oz), the man in charge of the engine.

The occupants of the rear carriages have to first escape their own confines, then battle their way up the train to try and secure the revolution they so desperately desire, meeting level after level of video-game baddies and puzzles on the way.

In essence it is a simple, although far-from-subtle, allegory about capitalism. Set on a train in the future. With axe-wielding maniacs and drug addicts. And Tilda Swinton. Got that?

Taking elements of Brazil, City of Lost Children, The Hunger Games and even Speed, Snowpiercer takes a simple (if thoroughly daft) premise and creates something utterly unique and somewhat bewildering, a rare thing in modern cinema. The production design is stunning, and extremely unusual for a film which could have been all slick lines and hexagons.

The tone veers between dark dystopian sci-fi and wry black comedy, by way of a balls-out action thriller, which can leave elements of it feeling a little disjointed. However, Bong Joon-Ho’s direction brings the whole piece together, creating some truly memorable scenes which both echo his previous work and yet still seem totally original. In particular a scene with black-clad butchers becomes both oddly comedic and utterly terrifying all at once, capturing some stunning action and gory violence with a wry smile.

The film found itself in post-production limbo after Bong Joon-Ho found himself at loggerheads with Harvey Weinstein, who had demanded it be trimmed from it’s rather hefty 126 minutes running time to make it more audience-friendly. You can read all about the saga here.

The original 126 minute version is both original, engaging and utterly bonkers by turn, but well worth seeking out to see a director really exercising his own unique vision. Snowpiercer will not be a movie for everyone, but it is an audacious and ambitious piece of film-making and a refreshing update to the action genre.

8 out of 10

An action film to take you off the beaten track

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