2 hours, 6 minutes
I find it a depressing fact of life, but more and more small, independent, or unique foreign films are premiering on VOD (video on-demand — basically streaming online) instead of in theaters. If the movie is high profile enough, such as this week’s “Snowpiercer,” the movie will come out in theaters and VOD simultaneously, but only in big cities or niche theaters.
I’d heard a lot about this movie, was excited to see it, and in the end, enjoyed it. But I won’t get the experience that the filmmakers had in mind when they designed the film — I won’t see it on the big screen in a theater with an audience. VOD is convenient and potentially a cheaper option than going out to a movie, but is it worth the trade-off? Not for me.
Chris Evans, otherwise known as Captain America, stars as Curtis in this bizarre, yet completely engaging post-apocalyptic thriller. Sometime in the very near future, the movie posits, scientists battling global warming come up new chemical compound which, when introduced into the atmosphere, is supposed to cool the planet gradually to a manageable temperature. Instead, due to some unknown miscalculation, the experiment plunges the planet into a complete global ice-age. Everyone everywhere perishes in the frigid temperatures.
Everyone, that is, except for those who were lucky enough to make it onto the Train. The Train, Wilford’s train, is the result of a fabulously wealthy man’s quixotic attempt to create a track to circumnavigate the globe, and an engine to run on it. Never stopping, generating its own power, the Train makes a pass around the globe once a year, and has been doing so every year for almost 20, without fail.
In the intervening years, in the absence of outside stimulus, the Train has become a kind of religion, with Wilfred its deity. In the front of the train, the wealthy live lives of ease and indulgence, while in the tail end, the poor and disenfranchised scrabble over scraps just to survive. Life is hard, and made harder by periodic visits from the front section to kidnap people from the tail for unknown sinister purposes.
Curtis is planning to change things, and, with the help of his wizened mentor Gilliam, played by John Hurt, the plan is to use an army to march right through to the front of the train, and take it.
The plot of “Snowpiercer” is good sci-fi, but what elevates the movie is the sense of strangeness, of oddity with which Korean director Joon-ho Bong infuses the entire production. The Train is like no train you’ve ever seen — the windowless rear cars calling to mind a Soviet-era Gulag, with bodies crammed in and filth and disease rampant. The production design is meticulous.
From there the train travels through the services areas, heat, water, police, and production of food for the rear — gelatinous “protein blocks” made from, well, you don’t want to know.
It’s amazing how the filmmakers are able to create a sense of spaciousness when you get to the front cars, vast compartments of luxury and leisure, though logic suggests these cars are the exact same size as the ones in back. Tilda Swinton, on top of her bizarre but very funny role as an 85-year old woman in “Grand Budapest Hotel” here takes on another strange character, Mason, a bureaucrat in charge of meting out justice to the back. Swinton is perfect in the role, managing to be both menacing and comical at the same time. What makes her performance so good is that she illustrates the undercurrent of madness running through the entire train. What would being cooped up like that do to you after 17 years, even in the comfort of the front cars?
When we are finally introduced to Wilfred himself, another fine performance by Ed Harris, it becomes obvious that even god is not immune to the pressures of isolation.
“Snowpiercer” is very good, but gets to be a little monotonous in the fight scenes. After seeing excellent action films like Indonesia’s “The Raid,” it’s obvious that close quarter battles can be thrilling. These felt almost as though Bong were hedging his bets, never quite showing all the violence in case he needed to edit to a PG-13, but including enough blood to get a solid R. It’s ironic that the film has this feel because one of the reasons “Snowpiercer” is even on the radar at all is due to a fairly well-publicized fight the director had with the Weinstein Co. over proposed cuts to the American release of the film. Reportedly, the studio wanted to release a sanitized version of the film to U.S. audiences and Joon-ho Bong set his feet. I’m glad he did, because aside from the violence, which I didn’t find to be much of an issue for an R-rated film, I’m sure much of the strangeness would have been excised from a re-edited version of the film.
That would have been a shame.
“Snowpiercer” is rated R for bloody violence, language, and disturbing scenes.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.