Ridiculous, Engaging and Perfect: ‘Snowpiercer’ delights through directorial restraint and stellar performances
Critics spend a lot of time dissecting what is right or, more likely, wrong with a particular genre. They act as if there is some magic formula anyone could adhere to and create a great film. But movies can’t be constructed like an erector set or drafted from a blueprint and built. Movies work or don’t work due to a number of factors. In a day and age when computers generate fantastic worlds and impossible images, it’s rarely technical issues that thwart a summer action film. An action film lives and dies by the strength of its’ characters and the believability of the world it creates.
Big-budget blockbusters often ask audiences to take a leap of faith into a world far more fantastic than reality: One where aliens invade earth, men don capes and cowls to fight crime, turtles become mutated teenage ninjas, or wizards are trained to wield their staffs. The number-one priority of a filmmaker is to bring credibility to outlandish ideas. Director Joon-ho Bong succeeds in creating such a world in his first English language film, “Snowpiercer.”
It’s the kind of summer movie they don’t make any more. It’s a brutal, violent drama, staged better than any movie I’ve seen this year. It boasts a brilliantly assembled cast, crew and a team of creators who have made something unique, thought-provoking and at times indescribable. It recalls movies like “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” “The Raid” and “The Hunger Games.” Bong follows in the footsteps of people like Wes Anderson and Chan-wook Park. The film even takes note of video games like “BioShock.” It perfectly meshes art and apocalypse.
The plot revolves around the last remnants of humanity. They’ve escaped a frozen world by taking refuge in a giant train. There is a natural division of the classes. The class war is broken down in the most simplistic of ways: The haves reside in the front of the train, and the have-nots are in the back. The downtrodden—kept on the precipice of starvation—become tired of the oppressive regime, so they decide to stage a coup. (“The peasants are revolting,” yadda, yadda, yadda.)
What blew me away about “Snowpiercer” was how damn tense the movie is. It’s the master class of friction. Bong shows restraint by slowing things down, which he often does at the beginning of a particularly explosive scene. (I’m not talking about that damn time-manipulation, computer-generated crap like in “300,” either.) Bong simply drowns out the noise and pauses before crescendoing the score. He mounts suspense pre-battle sequences like a surge of adrenaline waiting to be unleashed—it’s practically orgasmic.
Modern action films have become frantic, attention-span-killing hatchet jobs, edited with the pace of a cocaine overdose. “Snowpiercer” is crafted slowly. The camera moves deftly and navigates the close quarters of the train with a fluidity sorely lacking in modern-American cinema. The train, which houses an entire society, provides an aesthetically amazing canvas.
A well-crafted, beautiful world only matters if there are well-developed characters in it. “Snowpiercer” comprises an interesting collection of actors. Seeing Academy Award winners like Tilda Swinton, John Hurt and Octavia Spencer in a movie like “Snowpiercer” fascinates and comes somewhat unexpected. Chris Evans (“Captain America”) delivers more nuance in his performance than his Marvel-movie pedigree has shown. As Curtis, the somewhat-reluctant leader of the revolt, he emotes fear and hesitation when contemplating decisions that put the lives of so many in peril. Curtis isn’t the traditional action hero; he’s a man who feels his hand is forced by the upper class who’ve enslaved him far too long. Even though he feels justified in his actions, he laments the deaths of those he commands and those he is forced to kill.
“Snowpiercer” impresses with the singular nature of the story, too. Every character is expendable. There will be no sequels or spin-offs: The story exists in the framework of one movie. Through their journey to the front of the train, audiences get to know about these broken characters, and the strange, infuriating and fascinating world they inhabit.
“Snowpiercer” is the closest thing I’ve seen to a masterpiece in at least 10 years. I loved this movie—stars and all. I can’t remember a film that felt so ridiculous, so engaging and so perfect.
Starring Chris Evans, Jamie Bell and Tilda Swinton
Directed by Joon-ho Bong