Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Snowpiercer


SNOWPIERCER: Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Kang-ho Song, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, directed by Joon-ho Bong (126 min.)

Just when the postapocalyptic sci-fi landscape in film has started showing rust and staleness, along comes Snowpiercer, a wild and unhinged action thriller with a crazy setting and even crazier characters filling the screen.  The premise is intriguing, if not a little silly when you sit and think about it.  But that's the thing, don't think about it.  Director Joon-ho Bong has achieved what many sic-fi directors cannot these days: he has created a world so unique and so Gonzo that one cannot help get caught up in the plight of these characters, no matter how much reality eludes the story.  Snowpiercer is a one of a kind film I did not expect to see when the lights went down.

The setting is 2031 seventeen years after the world, for all intents and purposes, has ended.  In 2014 the governments of the world, in an attempt to bring down the planet's temperature, released a chemical compound into the atmosphere.  This never goes well.  In no short time the temperature of the planet falls through the floor and the world is frozen solid.  Nearly everything and everyone dies, except those lucky (or unlucky) enough to board a train which rockets around the earth on a vast track crossing all continents.  The train is long and whisks over the tracks and through the frozen landscape, run by a never-ending mysterious engine invented by the leader, or God, of the new world, Wilford (Ed Harris).  For seventeen years this train has been circling the earth, and the path takes a calendar year which is a handy tool to mark off time.

Within the train, a harsh class system has evolved between the haves and the have nots.  Those kept in the tail of the train are poor and crowded, dirty and disheveled, fed only gelatin-like protein bars for every meal.  This lower class are guarded heavily from getting to the front of the train, where the rich live in lush cabins and spend their time drinking and dining and enjoying nightclubs and free dental work.  Occasionally, Mason (Tilda Swinton) makes a trip to the impoverished to dole out disturbing and creative punishment and set the rules straight once again.  Swinton wonderfully chews scenery like she never has before, embellishing some nice idiosyncrasies in the Mason character which would fit well in a Terry Gilliam movie.   This very divided system is the New World, but of course with such a divided system, revolution is never far away.

The de-facto leader of the tail society is Curtis, played by Chris Evans in a brilliant performance.  Curtis has a plan to move his people through the security and fight through the guards to get to the front.  With the help of his sidekick, Edgar (Jamie Bell) and the wisdom of the old man, Gilliam (the great John Hurt), Curtis scratches and claws his way through the security and the journey begins to reach the upper crust and confront Wilford.  But this is a long train with many important life-sustaining cars, and there are several stops and detours for our hero along the way, including picking up a couple of interesting prisoners to assist the efforts.  I could go on, but let's keep the plot specifics a secret because the things which unfold I never expected.

No matter how bizarre or violent Snowpiercer gets, it never dumbs itself down to appease audiences.  Things are unclear for a long time, explained only as they would organically happen in conversation.  There is no outsider standing in for the audience to get the whole story, so attention is necessary.  And this world aboard the train and the increasingly wacky circumstances and situations build and build and deepen the film with every car.  There are clever and electric action sequences, but I found myself more involved with the kooky story between these violent outbursts.  These characters grow more important the closer they get to their goal, and each and every member aboard this train is compelling in their own right.

The supporting cast of Harris, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, and John Hurt are wonderful.  Kang-ho Song as a drug addled prisoner who also happens to be a former security engineer is intense and soulful, perhaps the second most important character in the core.  But this is a Chris Evans film, and there are moments from him that help support a little theory I have been rattling around in my own head for a while.  There is something more to Chris Evans than meets the eye.  He deserves all the credit in the world for turning Captain America into one of the better superhero franchises to date, but here Evans is given more opportunity to show range I have seen only in glimpses in lesser films.  There is a confession from Curtis near the end of the film that is the pinnacle of Evans' acting career to this point.  He is brilliant.

Snowpiercer is not a film for everyone, only a certain faction of sci-fi fans looking for a fresh take on a stale premise.  I wasn't sure what to expect going into the picture, but what I saw was most certainly not on my radar.  It is a pleasant surprise in every weird and oddball way imaginable.

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