Like the train that is the film’s namesake, Snowpiercer is in constant motion.
The Korean production by Joon-ho Bong (The Host, Mother) stars an international cast that includes Chris Evans in the lead role, with Jamie Bell, Ed Harris, Octavia Spencer, Alison Pill, Kang-ho Song, Ah-sung Ko, Luke Pasqualino in roles of varying importance. It’s Tilda Swinton, though, who steals the show. In her third appearance on our screens this year (she’s in Terry Gilliam’s Zero Theorem, but it’s unlikely to get a Canadian theatrical release), and after a career resurgence thanks to her magnetic White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia in 2005, it’s clear there’s not much Swinton does wrong. In Snowpiercer, she’s Mason, a snobby bourgeois who dons a preposterous bob, fake teeth, expensive furs and colourful dresses and suits. She first graces Snowpiercer about 15 minutes in and her Mason is the first pop of colour in Bong’s moody grey-green film, lensed by Kyung-pyo Hong. You get Mason and what she’s about right away.
Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, the action thriller boasts one of the coolest sci-fi concepts: It’s 2031 and for 17 years after an environmental disaster froze Earth, a train has been chugging along on an cross-national railway carrying the planet’s human survivors. The train is humanity’s only hope, but it’s also developed a nasty class system. At the front of the train are Swinton’s Mason and other well-dressed, well-coiffed, bathed, steak eaters. At the train’s tail are Evans, Bell, Harris and Spencer’s characters living in overcrowded, dirty quarters with no windows. They’re fed protein blocks: they look like Jell-O, but you find out later they’re definitely not Jell-O. There are things that have gone “extinct” in the 17 years since the Snowpiercer started its never-ending journey – cigarettes, for example – but society’s need for justice remains: for throwing a shoe at a guard, a back-of-the-train passenger gets seven minutes of punishment; that’s seven minutes with his arm outside the train, at the mercy of the elements on Earth, immeasurably cold since 2014. Mason addresses the passengers, reminding them that everyone’s place is pre-ordained and the class system must be respected. “I am a hat, you are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot.” She continues: “Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe.” The screenplay wasn’t written by Friends‘ Rachel Green, but the shoes want to be hats, so Evans’s Curtis and co. devise a plan to take the train, one car at a time. To unlock the gates to get to the front of the train, they’ll need a security specialist who they’ll have to break out of the prison car (if he’s a security expert, why can’t he get himself out, quips one character). The film’s occasionally witty dialogue never compromises its serious matter: it’s a dark film that’s often very violent with lots on its mind and even more to say.
The journey to the front is where Snowpiercer shows off. We go through a school (my favourite sequence, for its craziness), a spa, a water-treatment facility and a nightclub: exciting and ultraviolent action scenes, exquisite sets and production design, matched perfectly to realistic costumes and hair. It’s sci-fi, but it all feels and looks real and plausible.
Harvey Weinstein, whose TWC distributed Snowpiercer in North America, reportedly wanted 20 minutes cut from the 126-minute movie, but everything in Snowpiercer is necessary for background, context, history and exposition. Where the movie could have saved some minutes is in having fewer slow-motion sequences. I counted at least six that just didn’t fit with the look and feel I thought Snowpiercer was going for – blame Zack Snyder, I guess, for ruining slo-mo for me. As it stands, though, 2014 is shaping up to be a great year for serious, dark and cerebral science fiction, with Snowpiercer and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes leading the pack.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Snowpiercer opens in Montreal July 18, screening exclusively at Cinéma du Parc in Montreal.