Saturday, July 19, 2014

SNOWPIERCER Is A Runaway Train of Awesome Sci-Fi Insanity


- Love insane / insanely-awesome movies? Then stop what you're doing and go see/rent/download SNOWPIECER asap. From Korean director Joon-ho Bong (The Host), this is gonzo sci-fi action - with a hefty helping of socio-political commentary - the likes of which you just don't see from big-studio Hollywood blockbusters. Basically, this movie is not content do do anything by-the-numbers. It operates on only one level, and that level is balls-to-the-wall extreme.

The film is a true international production. It's a Korean film that's (mostly) in English, based on a French comic book, adapted by American screenwriter Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead), shot in Prague, and starring a diverse cast that includes big-time talent like Chris Evans, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Alison Pill, Octavia Spencer, an acting icon whose presence I won't spoil because it's sort-of-a-big-reveal, and the Korean star of The Host and Thirst, Kang-ho Song. All of that globe-spanning talent gives the movie a truly eclectic, international feel. And that only enhances the whacked-out premise of the film ...

SNOWPIERCER takes place is a post-apocalyptic future-earth in which the scant remnants of humanity live aboard a perpetually-moving train, ever-circling the globe. Why a train? Seventeen years prior, the global warming crisis reached red-alert levels. In a last-ditch effort to change the tide of climate change, scientists released a cooling agent into the atmosphere. However, the tactic backfired: suddenly, the earth became deathly cold - an icy tundra; uninhabitable. Most died, but a lucky few found safe haven on the mega-sized train that had been created by a mysterious engineer named Wilford. Ridiculed as purposeless upon its invention, the train proved to be the last, best hope for the survival for the people of earth. To keep order on the train, Wilford imposed a class system that was both calculated and ruthless. In the front of the train lived an upper class - a privileged elite living as hedonists, removed from the other passengers. In the back of the train lived everyone else - castoffs living in cramped quarters, fed only gelatinous protein bars for sustenance. Beaten, abducted, malnourished - the back-of-the-train population had attempted revolt on a few occasions - all unsuccessful. Now though, under the leadership of Chris Evans' Curtis (helped by his mentor, the aged revolutionary Gilliam, played by John Hurt), there is one last, desperate attempt at revolution.

John Hurt's character is named Gilliam, and it's no coincidence. With its hyper-detailed, hyper-stylized, nightmarish aesthetic, the movie looks and feels like some alternate-universe take on the films of the legendary Terry Gilliam. In the back of the train, there's a grimy, pseudo-steampunk aesthetic that recalls the doomed world of 12 Monkeys. Other moments of the film echo the dreamlike, surrealist bent of Brazil. Like that film, SNOWPIERCER is about the concept of breaking through to the other side, of shattering reality, of finding freedom and new beginnings. In a similar fashion, many of the film's aesthetics and themes brought to mind the modern-classic videogame Bioshock. To be sure, Wilford is an enigmatic, Andrew Ryan-esque figure. And the utopia-gone-wrong vibe of the train's front cars shows shades of Bioshock's aquatic world of Rapture (there's even a scene in the film where drugged-up partygoers in the front of the train attack Curtis and his compatriots while wearing creepy, Bioshock-esque masquerade masks).

Pop-culture influences aside, it needs to be said that SNOWPIERCER is an absolutely, jaw-droppingly gorgeous film. The action in the film is glorious - with each major skirmish wholly unique in its aesthetic and structure. Evans' Curtis leads a ragtag group of revolutionaries from the back of the train to the front, car by car - and, along the way, they encounter all manner of opposition from Wilford's elite soldiers. There's a breathtaking lights-out firefight, with combatants visible only by torchlight. There's an epic Raid-style throwdown between Curtis' men and a squad of armed-to-the-tooth foot soldiers. Best of all is an absolutely insane confrontation that occurs within a brightly-decorated children's classroom, with even the seemingly mild-mannered teachers getting in on the action. I will say no more, suffice it to say: holy crap on a stick. It's not just the action that looks fantastic though. There are all sorts of quieter moments of strange beauty. Take for example the memorable scene in which Curtis and co. make their way into the train's glowing-blue aquarium car, with glass walls and ceilings, behind which swim all manner of sea creatures, and in front of which is stationed a lone sushi chef. The sheer level of artistry and imagination that went into crafting the train's elaborate, self-sustaining design - with each car a new mini-universe unto itself - is mind-melting.

In the lead role, Chris Evans does some really good stuff. Between this and Captain America, the guy is really evolving into one of the best action leads in movies today. Here, he retains Cap's unwavering drive and nobility, but adds a tortured past and some gritty edge (translation: more brooding). But Evans' Curtis is a dynamic protagonist, and the performance is only enhanced by the delightfully oddball supporting cast that surrounds him. John Hurt is quite good as his wizened adviser, and Jamie Bell brings some comic relief as his puckish sidekick. Octavia Spencer, too, is a lot of fun (and surprisingly kick-ass) as a mother determined to find her missing son, taken away by Wilford's goons. But the real standouts in Curtis' band of freedom fighters are Kang-ho Song as drug-addicted security-specialist Namgoong, and Ah-sung Ko as Namgoong's teenage daughter Yona. Namgoong is just a badass character - Curtis frees him from imprisonment in a tiny cell, and finds that the man he needs to unlock the barriers between train cars is desperately addicted to a hallucinagenic drug made from industrial waste, commonly traded and smuggled throughout the train. Song brings an unstable, anarchic wildness to the character, and he also does a great job of giving depth to Namgoong's relationship with his daughter - an innocent who is forced to do some quick growin' up in order to stay alive over the course of the film.

Apart from the members of Curtis' group, the absolute standout here is Tilda Swinton. Between this and her darkly awesome turn in Only Lovers Left Alive, Swinton may be my pick for MVP of 2014 at the movies so far. She absolutely kills it in SNOWPIERCER as Mason, Wilfrod's sniveling second-in-command. Swinton goes 100% over-the-top here, delivering an insane performance that has to be seen to be believed. Mason is almost indescribably weird, a buck-toothed, nasally, tree-pole who is the ultimate lackey - a groveling lieutenant who enacts her master's orders with inhuman ruthlessness, clinging to whatever power she holds with quivering hands and desperate avarice. This is a weird, wild, rock n' roll performance for the ages, people.

I've also got to give a mention to Alison Pill - always great - but who also just kills it in a small but extremely memorable role as a school-teacher so full of saccharine sweetness that you just know it's only a matter of time before the other shoe drops, and we see that she's not quite what she seems. When it does, oh boy, watch out. Teacher ain't so sweet, kids. Alls I can say is that the "classroom" scene of SNOWPIERCER is an all-time classic.

Finally, I won't spoil the identity of Wilford, but seeing who plays him is a great little surprise. What I will say is: expect gravitas.

As crazy as this movie is, it's also pretty loaded with big ideas and very vital-feeling echoes of real-world class struggles. In many ways, the movie's proletariat uprising one-ups last year's Elysium in effectively telling a similar sort of sci-fi parable about haves vs. have-nots. What powers SNOWPIERCER is a runaway-train-like sense of righteous anger that gives the film's action an electric charge. The film has no wasted motion - similar to recent action milestones like The Raid, it propels forward at 100 mph, and rarely lets up. But amidst the action and visual splendor is an omnipresent undercurrent of rage-against-the-machine political commentary. Each element of the train can be seen as representing the elements of the machine that powers our society. There's a capitalist-critique, represented by Wilford's uncaring, order-keeping system, that shows how atrocities are buried and moral lines crossed in order to empower the elites and keep society's engine chugging along. Wilford's train is indeed self-sustaining, but at what cost? Ultimately, the train is a grotesque abomination. Even the elegant front cars exist as they do only because of the out-of-sight, out-of-mind exploitation of the back cars. The unwashed masses of the back cars subsist on the unwanted garbage of the front. And all - front and back - are brainwashed into thinking that this is all there is and can ever be. The train is the world, and no escape is possible. And so, as Curtis makes his way to the front of the train, eager to find and eliminate Wilford, the movie boldly asks if Curtis is simply on track to become the new Wilford. Is change in the system even possible from within? Is Curtis' revolution folly - just one more way to let the people let off steam, only to be squashed back into submission? SNOWPIERCER cleverly asks all these questions and more, and you've got to admire it for its politically-charged subversive streak. As out-there as it is, in many ways this is also thought-provoking sci-fi in its purest form.

My only complaint: the movie at times makes questionable narrative calls. One key scene, involving a startling confession from Curtis about his past, is legitimately shocking but also feels tonally off. It's *so* shocking that it just feels like too much, and is almost unintentionally chuckle-inducing in how crazy it sounds coming out of Chris Evans' mouth (to the actor's credit, he sells it as best as he possibly can - but still ...). There are also a few plot-points and characters that sort of pop-up, but don't really feel fully fleshed-out. The movie mostly benefits from its chaotic nature, but sometimes it does seem to be moving with such out-of-control ferocity that you're left with "huh?!" moments that break the narrative flow a bit.

But hey, listen up: if you like movies that dare to go a little nuts, that seek to challenge you, that present you with ideas, concepts, and aesthetics that are anything but typical - then yeah, add SNOWPIERCER to your must-watch-list now. It's insanely ambitious and, well, just plain insane. Over-the-top action, bursting-with-imagination, visionary sci-fi weirdness, instantly-iconic performances from Swinton and a loaded cast, and a fiery political streak that will leave you ready to start a revolution -- SNOWPIERCER has it all. Want to see a new cult-classic-in-the-making? See this film.

My Grade: A-

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