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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 9.09%
Average: 0%
Pretty Bad: 9.09%
Total Crap: 9.09%

2 reviews, 10 user ratings

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by Jay Seaver

"A train worth getting on for lovers of unusual sci-fi action."
5 stars

A Korean director making an English-language movie from a French graphic novel may seem like a random combination, but it's really not: Both Korean genre film and French bandes dessinées often blur genre lines and forms, while English certainly helps get even a modestly-budgeted film made and distributed. Thus we wind up with "Snowpiercer", just as odd as director Bong Joon-ho's previous foray into sci-fi action (Korean monster movie "The Host"), but also just as exciting.

The high concept is out there: In 2014, an attempt to combat global warming backfired, plunging the world into a deadly new ice age. Fortunately, that's also the year Wilford Industries unveiled their "Snowpiercer" train system, which makes a complete circuit of the Earth every year, the perpetual-motion engine plowing through frozen obstructions. Seventeen-odd years later, Gilliam (John Hurt) and Curtis (Chris Evans), the unofficial leaders of the poor people at the tail end of the train, plot revolution, with Curtis and his young accomplice Edgar (Jamie Bell) planning to work their way to the front and seize control of the engine. To do that, they'll need to break security expert Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) out of the prison car, although he turns out to be addicted to "Kronol" and insists on bringing his daughter Yona (Ko Ah-sung) along. The group also includes Tanya (Octavia Spencer), whose son was taken without explanation. Everyone would like a chance to stick it to Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), among others.

There's a long list of things in Snowpiercer that don't make any sense whatsoever, and not just because the film's American release could actually come after the mid-2014 disaster that kicks everything off. The logical contortions one must undertake in order to accept the premise are both reasonably well concealed and worth it, though, as the train is a striking metaphor for modern-day authoritarian states which have evolved a middle class but are still built upon oppression. That middle class serves as a buffer that, in this case, the revolutionaries must literally fight their way through.

And fight they do! For all that the setting of a train may be deliberately constricting, Bong constructs some excellent action sequences, including a centerpiece that starts at "ax fight" and develops a twist or two from there. There's a thoroughly unlikely but still highly entertaining shootout, and a few thrilling beats that come from the audience getting a look at the environment the train is passing through - which, of course, the audience only gets to see once the rebels have fought their way to a car that has windows.

In some ways, the particulars of this dystopia are a bit familiar - I am guessing that it is no coincidence that John Hurt's character is named "Gilliam"; the back of the train is the sort of grimy, dehumanizing world that fantasist Terry made his name on. As the action moves toward the front, a surreal cleanliness takes over, perhaps reaching its apex when the tail-enders burst into a classroom. There is a certain intrigue to the set-up, though; the very linearity of this world makes the familiar seem alien. And for all that some things like Yona's apparent clairvoyance go relatively unexplained, Bong, co-writer Kelly Masterson (and presumably original creators Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette) have built a world whose details and history seem real enough to hold the improbable setting together.

A good cast also helps with that. In some cases, it's guys doing what they are best known for - John Hurt has been playing this sort of role for decades, and has it down to a science. Some folks, like Alison Pill, impress in brief appearances; others, like Tilda Swinton, manage to keep an absurd grotesquerie of a character amusing for the length of the film. Ed Harris is saved for toward the end - when someone needs to be very good to justify introducing a new character - and goes to town on the material Bong gives him. It's the core of the cast that really holds things down, though: Chris Evans makes a surprisingly good reluctant hero, with Jamie Bell a pugnacious sidekick; Song Kang-ho is once again disheveled and clever, while Ko Ah-sung presents a sense of excitement at discovering new things without ever underselling the danger the characters are in. They're good enough that Bong has no trouble making the climax of his movie not a big action scene, but a pair of long speeches (one in English, one in Korean) before heading to the big showdown.

That the movie has a relatively talky finale - and takes its time to get started - means its not particularly surprising that US distributor TWC is talking about cutting twenty minutes out of a 126-minute film. Hopefully that doesn't come to pass; Bong Joon-ho has not made a bad movie yet and the transition to working in English hasn't tripped him up any.

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originally posted: 12/18/13 11:26:44
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Berlin Film Festival For more in the 2014 Berlin Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival For more in the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Boston SciFi Film Festival For more in the 2015 Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/27/19 Dr.Lao I know it was a silly idea but, really? Is this the best they could do? 2 stars
11/17/17 morris campbell ass kicking 5 stars
10/30/16 morris campbell awesome dark& dour but awesome 5 stars
2/11/15 Rachel Roth Intense and heart pounding, never wanted it to end 5 stars
11/21/14 Flipsider Intriguing movie. The new spin on an old premise really works. 4 stars
8/29/14 Langano Disappointing attempt at innovation. 2 stars
7/22/14 FireWithFire Marxist 1 stars
7/14/14 laura Brilliant film from a master 5 stars
7/01/14 Chris More steampunk garbage from this Matrix clone 1 stars
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  27-Jun-2014 (R)
  DVD: 21-Oct-2014


  DVD: 21-Oct-2014

Directed by
  Joon-ho Bong

Written by
  Joon-ho Bong
  Kelly Masterson

  Chris Evans
  Kang-ho Song
  John Hurt
  Ah-sung Ko
  Tilda Swinton
  Jamie Bell
  Ed Harris

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