Review: ‘Snowpiercer’ is an alternate universe blockbuster (which is to say great)

Chris Evans (center, between John Hurt and Jamie Bell) plays a downtrodden man fighting his way through a class-divided train in "Snowpiercer." Credit: RADiUS-TWC
Chris Evans (center, between John Hurt and Jamie Bell) plays a downtrodden man fighting his way through a class-divided train in “Snowpiercer.”
Credit: RADiUS-TWC

‘Snowpiercer’
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Stars: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

The South Korean dystopian thriller “Snowpiercer” arrives in America quietly, receiving a gradual, probably too modest release in America. It shouldn’t necessarily be that way. Here are four things you should know about it.

It’s a big movie

“Snowpiercer” isn’t a mere specialty foreign release; it’s a mainstream film. Not only that, it’s a big movie with big familiar-to-America stars. Its lead is our current Captain America, ferchrissakes. Chris Evans, star of the highest grossing American film of the year as of this writing, plays a young but grizzled man who lives at the back of a train that carries with it the remainder of humanity. It’s 2031, and because due to a reckless attempt to stop climate change the world has frozen over. Those who survived live aboard a train plowing around the world in a giant circle, which unfortunately is segmented into class: the rich and bored up front, the downtrodden and near-feral in the back. Evans’ Curtis leads the latest attempt to fight the way to the front.

Song Kang-ho, a regular of filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, is reliably hilarious and magnetic in "Snowpiercer." Credit: RADiUS-TWC
Song Kang-ho, a regular of filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, is reliably hilarious and magnetic in “Snowpiercer.”
Credit: RADiUS-TWC

It was a hit everywhere else

Though it’s “only” the 10th highest grossing homemade South Korean film in history, that’s nothing to sneeze at: the country loves their big movies, as they tend to actually be very good. Case in point: “The Host” — the all-time winner — is a superior, funny, scary, clever monster movie. That film’s director, Bong Joon-ho, also made “Snowpiercer,” and he’s a populist who refuses to come to Hollywood, where his personal, edgy style would no doubt be sanded down to a boring, bland nub.

Admittedly, for many Americans this may not be a full-on mainstream release; it’s too weird, too dark (and too funny). It’s an alternate universe blockbuster, albeit one upon which the rest of the Hollywood-loving world already feasted. And yet its distributor — The Weinstein Company off-shoot RADiUS-TWC — are keeping it suspiciously close to the chest, treating it like a stealth blockbuster quietly slipped into theaters. Still, better that than their original plan: to lop off around 20 minutes of the not long 124 minute length.

Tilda Swinton is an example of "Snowpiercer"'s extreme goofy side. Credit: RADiUS-TWC
Tilda Swinton is an example of “Snowpiercer”‘s extreme goofy side.
Credit: RADiUS-TWC

It masterfully mixes tones

One thing Hollywood would force Bong to lose is his extremes: He has a very goofy sense of humor, but he also loves to take his films to truly dark places. “Snowpiercer” is a very funny satire, especially as Evans and cast (including John Hurt and Jamie Bell, and eventually always freakishly entertaining Bong regular Song Kang-ho) progress through cars, each one a riotous surprise that often radically changes the color scheme — from the dank blacks and sooty grays of the rear car to retina-searing loud colors of the one that holds a kindergarten. Tilda Swinton is also on hand to steal the movie as one of the heartless baddies, with giant fake teeth, granny glasses and a hilarious Yorkshire accent.

At the same time, it’s fearless and brutal. Nice characters are routinely picked off, as are entertaining evil ones. The rear car is a Dickensian hellscape where the poor are fed slimy food blocks, whose ingredients, when revealed, will turn stomachs. Evans too is hard and singleminded — a traumatized hero with a horrific back story that was doubtless the first thing to be chopped when Harvey Weinstein had planned to scissor it up. It doesn’t hold things back even as it’s getting funny or, in its big melee fight scenes, which are thrilling in part because just about anyone could eat it at any time.

John Hurt serves as mentor to "Snowpiercer"'s downtrodden in one of many shots reminiscent of old-timey photos of poverty. Credit: RADiUS-TWC
John Hurt serves as mentor to “Snowpiercer”‘s downtrodden in one of many shots reminiscent of old-timey photos of poverty.
Credit: RADiUS-TWC

It’s genuinely angry

The climate change business isn’t technically original; even Roland Emmerich (with “The Day After Tomorrow”) has gotten in on this game. The same goes, honestly, for its class politics, even if it’s even more incensed than most genre films like it. Bong is right there with the poor, who aren’t even poor — they have absolutely nothing outside the meager miseries they’re given. He actually lays out class sideways, one section at a time, so that by the time you get to the people lounging in Jacuzzis or clubbing, it’s impossible to avoid the outrage of all of us — that is, all of us wasting our lives on Internet time-sucks or even watching movies like “Snowpiercer” — living as though the genuinely down-trodden don’t somewhere exist, screaming for help that will never come.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge



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