By NATHAN LERNER
“Snowpiercer” represents the auspicious English-language debut of South Korean filmmaker, Bong Joon-ho.
“Snowpiercer” is set in the dystopian future, circa 2031. To combat global warming, the world’s leaders had released chemicals into the atmosphere. Their strategy proved disastrous. The planet became encrusted with snow and most of the human race was annihilated.
The only human survivors live aboard a megatrain, which hurtles through the tundra. It circumnavigates the planet on a continuous annual loop. Wilford (Ed Harris, unseen through most of the film), a genius train fetishist, had designed the vehicle as a self-sustaining eco-system to perpetuate the human species.
The train is stratified into a strictly-demarcated class system. The protagonist, Curtis (a bearded Chris Evans) is part of the oppressed lower caste, who have been shoe-horned into the filthy, windowless last car of the train. His fellow residents include Gilliam, a universally-respected elder statesman (John Hurt); Tanya, a feisty mother (Octavia Spencer); and Edgar, a young hothead (Jamie Bell). They subsist on protein bars, rather than actual food, and endure abject misery.
Their car is regularly visited by Wilford’s surrogate, Mason (Tilda Swinton), unrecognizable behind out-sized glasses, prosthetic nose, protruding dentition, and a thoroughly unflattering hairstyle. Mason berates the car’s inhabitants and bludgeons them with her social Darwinist rhetoric.
Bristling with resentment, Curtis and his compatriots organize an insurrection. Their plan is to overcome the guards and move forward through the train to its front, where Wilford is ensconced. To achieve their goal, they must extricate Min-soo (Song Kang-ho), a drug-addled security expert, from the prison car.
Heretofore, Chris Evans has been largely relegated to playing comic book heroes. He portrayed Johnny Storm/Human Torch in a pair of “Fantastic Four” flicks, and Steve Rogers/Captain America in three other vehicles. He came across as a total stiff, who relied on his traditional good looks. In “Snowpiercer,” Evans demonstrates that he can actually act. He inhabits his ruminative, guilt-ridden character with convincing competence.
Of course, old pros like John Hurt, Cate Blanchett and Ed Harris can be relied upon to deliver strong performances. These are well-complemented by Song Kang-ho, one of South Korea’s leading stars, and the rest of the ensemble cast.
The film derives from a French graphic novel, adapted by Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson. It rivals “Road to Perdition” as the most surprising film with a comic book pedigree. It has a rich allegorical quality, replete with an explicit treatment of class warfare and subservience to fascistic authority.
Joon-ho won critical plaudits for directing two Korean language films, “The Host” and “Mother.” He makes a surprisingly smooth transition to helming an English language film with an extensive international cast. Joon-ho mounts a series of vignettes that are fluid and creates a synergistic narrative thrust. He has a particular predilection for stylized violence.
This French/Czech/Korean/U.S. collaboration boasts an international production crew. They provide consistently superb tech values. Using genuine 35 millimeter film stock, cinematographer, Hong Kyung Pyo provides crisp lensing. His lighting scheme enhances the dramatic resonance of the film. It is particularly striking, during a confessional soliloquy by Curtis as Min-soo listens intently. Scoring by the prolific Marco Berltrami (Oscar-nominated for “The Hurt Locker,” “3:10 to Yuma”) is richly evocative, without ever becoming intrusive. The production design by Ondrej Nekvasil is striking. It starkly contrasts the cramped grunginess of the last car with the opulence of self-contained cars dedicated to saunas, a garden, sushi bar, disco, and Wilford’s private accommodations in the train’s forward section.
“Snowpiercer” was plagued with problems en route to United States theatrical outlets. Studio mogul, Harvey Weinstein, purchased the rights to distribute the film domestically back in 2012 on the strength of the script and a sizzle reel of some sample footage. The contract called for a wide release here. However, when the film arrived with a running time over two hours, Weinstein demanded cuts. However, filmmaker Joon-ho adamantly refused to capitulate. He contended that the proposed cuts would compromise his artistic vision. Whatever you think of the artistic merit of “Snowpiercer,” you have to respect Joon-ho’s moxie.
Despite strong box office in South Korea and an overwhelmingly positive critical response, it looked like “Snowpiercer” would be dumped directly onto DVD, depriving American audiences of seeing it on the big screen. A belated détente was reached between the studio and the principled filmmaker. The director’s cut is the one that will receive a theatrical release, but only on an extremely limited basis in select markets. Unless it does substantial box office, the film will not expand beyond its circumscribed release.
I lack sufficient prescience to accurately predict whether audiences will flock to theaters in numbers, which are sufficient to inspire an expanded roll-out. However, I can state with confidence that if you ferret out a venue showing “Snowpiercer,” you will be rewarded with a top caliber cinematic experience.
“Snowpiercer” has all the trappings of an apocalyptic sci-fi film. However, courtesy of a conceptually provocative screenplay, lively action, strong acting, deft direction by Joon-ho, and excellent production values, “Snowpiercer” transcends the genre.
You can forget about, “Murder on the Orient Express” and other films with locomotive-drawn transportation. “Snowpiercer” is the ultimate train ride.
**** R (for violence, language and drug content) 126 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at email@example.com.