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Snowpiercer (2013)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Kang-ho Song, Ah-sung Ko, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris

Written By: Joon-ho Bong (also screen story), Kelly Masterson Directed By: Joon-ho Bong

The Short Version

The Self Aware Art House meets The Post Apocalypse.

It’s a story of order versus chaos… and chaos appears to be winning.

There’s lots of real talent to be found in front of the camera, though.

The interior production design is rich; the exteriors appear to have been built from a meager slush fund.

Snowpiercer is a fascinating take on post-Apocalyptic sci fi, but a single viewing should suffice.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


It’s tasty stuff to pull from cold storage; just remember that it’s processed from something loaded with holes.

Pairs Well With...


It’s not everyone’s taste, but for the proper audience it can be delicious.  Just don’t gulp it down or fall into the trap of overcontemplating its novelty.

“I am a hat.  You are a shoe.”

I admit walking into Snowpiercer expecting quite a bit. 

Having already enjoyed international release for two-thirds of a year, the film’s reputation had preceded it.  Much of that reputation derived from the behind-the-scenes stories of how those wacky moguls at The Weinstein Company wanted to hack out twenty minutes from director Joon-ho Bong’s finished film and simplify the plot by way of a voice over track (you remember how “successful” that noise was in the original cut of Blade Runner, don’t you?), and how Bong stood his ground until finally the Weinsteins caved and let the picture stand as its director had intended.  That kind of integrity holding out against that kind of money and power is a rare thing, and cinema connoisseurs tend to celebrate such victories when they hear of them.

Having now seen Snowpiercer for myself, I can definitely say that I find Joon-ho Bong to be a man of vision and artistic integrity.  Whether or not that vision results in a consistent, coherent narrative is a matter for each member of the audience to decide in turn.

But oh, it is a ride.  Often through a house of mirrors, but definitely a ride.

Based on a French graphic novel, Snowpiercer takes place entirely on a world-circling train first conceived as a luxury rail liner that’s now home to all that’s left of the human race.  Just under a generation before our tale, the Powers That Be decided to Do Something About Climate Change by releasing an experimental gas into the atmosphere to reduce the effects of global warming.  Unfortunately, the planet cooled too much, an extreme Ice Age hit, and all life on Earth died, save for those lucky enough to be aboard the miracle train with the perpetual motion engine that keeps it and everyone aboard from freezing to death… so long as the train never stops, which it hasn’t for eighteen years.

From the very beginning, a strict societal class system was put into place, with the First Class passengers (and their descendants) at the front of the train living lives of high privilege, the Coach riders living more blue collar lives in the middle, and the “Freeloaders” living in utter squalor at the rear.  The train’s designer, Willford (Ed Harris, The Abyss), tends to the engine at the very head of it all, and is worshipped as a god.

As we catch up with the miracle train, a group of people in the back led by young Curtis (Chris Evans, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and egged on by his elderly mentor, Gilliam (John Hurt, Alien), have decided that enough is enough, and that it’s high time for the lower classes to rise up from their cattle-like existence in the back and take over the train, which means finding a way to get to the engine.  It’s a journey that won’t be easy, and they’ll discover lots of things along the way that they probably never wanted to know, not just about the train, but also about themselves…

Snowpiercer is built upon a fascinating concept, and director Joon-ho Bong and his team are just a wee bit too conscious of that fact.  During the course of the film, one gets the sense of a picture that knows it hangs in an art house and keeps trying to admire itself in the Louis XIV mirror across the hall.  (I’m pretty sure it’s no accident that the people behind the look and feel of the movie are the first ones credited during the opening roll, starting with the costume designer.  Never mind the cast.)  It is, at various points, too pretty, too grisly, too dirty, too clever, too Neanderthal, and always, always too self aware, at the cost of a consistent, coherent, logical narrative. 

But then again, that may very well be the point, therein lies the rub of Snowpiercer.  In the end, if there’s any single thread that holds it together, it’s a thread made of entropy.  Given that, logic and consistency don’t necessarily need to apply anymore, because hey, chaos is supposed to win, right?

Personally, I only buy that argument partway.  I can accept it as an excuse for the narrative feeling more like a connection of stylistically dissimilar short stories (with each section of the train being its own vignette: some absurd, some slasher-violent, some narco-club-decadent, some just plain gorgeous, etc.) than a tight, coherent tale, but at least keep the story straight in terms of how cold it is outside.  (Early on, it’s considered cold enough to have a liquid nitrogen shattering effect on exposed limbs; later, it’s okay to blast holes through the window for the sake of a gunfight across a bend in the track.)  Come to think of it, with so much effort obviously put into the train’s interiors and the wonderfully lived-in costumes, it would be nice to see a similar amount of effort put into the exterior shots, which look unfinished to the point where one can honestly wonder if all of them made it through the final stages of post production.  Consistency: it’s not too much to ask.

And yet, for all of the problems I have with Snowpiercer – and I keep coming up with more the longer I think about it – I can’t say that I dislike the movie.  As suggested above, the concept – logically ridiculous though it may be (a fact that any decent post-Apocalypse fan will happily accept on its face without holding it against the film) – is interesting, an in a been-there/done-that subgenre like this one, that counts for a lot.  The overall narrative may be wonky at best (and have, I will confess without spoiling any details, a pretty lousy ending), but taken as individual vignettes, many of the stories contained within are first rate stuff.  (Take the speech from which I pulled the quote up top as an example of one.)  The cast may play ninth banana to the costume designer in the credit roll, but there are some damn fine performances here, starting with the always wonderful Tilda Swinton (The Grand Budapest Hotel) acting past the world’s most absurd dentures and continuing on through the venerable John Hurt (whose character of Gilliam seems to have derived his name from the man behind Brazil, unless I miss my guess) and people you’ve probably never heard of before like Kang-ho Song (The Host) and Ah-sung Ko (The Happy Life).  (You may have noticed that I skipped Our Hero, played by Chris Evans.  Those hoping to catch a glimpse of his range outside of Marvel superhero flicks will find that the most compelling thing about him in this movie is his beard.  Sorry, folks; the guy’s a brick wall here.  But he’s the exception, not the rule.)  And then there’s the simple fact that whether you end up liking the film or hating it, I guarantee that once you’ve left the theatre, you won’t be able to stop thinking about it, and that’s always a sign of something worthwhile.  (Unless, of course, you’re the guy sitting two rows in front of me who started snoring during the third act; but like Chris Evans, I’m pretty sure that he’s the exception rather than the rule here.)

Bottom line, it’s not what I was expecting, and certainly not as good as I was expecting, but walking out of the theatre today, I can honestly say that I’m glad that I took the time to see Snowpiercer.  I doubt that I ever will again unless it’s for the sake of a friend, but as a fan of the post-Apocalypse genre and as someone who can appreciate it when an artist wants to try something different, it was worth that single look.  Just keep those expectations tempered, and there’s interest to be pulled from the entropy.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, July, 2014

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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