If it doesn’t strike you as a little odd that a sci-fi, dystopian action movie starring Chris Evans (Captain America himself!) should have its first Montana screening at our quaint indie theater, the Wilma, it really should. I mention this at the start because I wouldn’t want action fans to confuse Snowpiercer for a quiet, contemplative film about a dying grandmother or something and thus miss out on a good thing. Make no mistake: This is a summer blockbuster in art-house clothing, and it’s one of the most entertaining and engrossing films to come out so far this year.
In the year 2031, life on earth has been wiped out by an experiment designed to combat global warming gone wrong. Everything outside is a freezing wasteland, and the only people left alive are the few souls on board the Rattling Ark, a train that’s been circling the planet for the last 17 years. A complicated caste system has emerged, where the wealthiest inhabitants occupy the front of the train, with the poorest, lowliest citizens cramped in the back. Then there are the hired goons, motivated by god knows what, but nevertheless, they’re heavily armed and tasked with keeping order. In the very front car lives the train’s creator: Wilson, a mythical, Oz-like patriarch whose purposes include angering the downtrodden and keeping the sacred engine running.
Now there’s a New Year coming and the poor people are plotting a revolution. Curtis (Chris Evans) is the reluctant hero, under the tutelage of a wise old cripple named Gilliam (John Hurt). Rounding out the crew we have Tanya (Octavia Spencer), a no-nonsense mother, and a young buck named Edgar (Jamie Bell) who’s old enough to remember a little what life was like outside of the train, but not much. Together, they plan to storm to the front and take over control. Once you get a look at the gelatinous cubes of protein they’re given to eat daily, it’s easy to see what would fuel such a mutiny. The revolutionary plot gets really personal when authorities from the front swoop in and kidnap a handful of the poor people’s children, including Tanya’s 5-year-old son.
This is Korean director Joon-ho Bong’s first American film. He also adapted the screenplay from a French graphic novel, along with co-writer Kelly Masterson. Bong’s other films include Mother (2009), Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host (2006), an excellent monster movie that remains Korea’s highest grossing film of all time (available on Netflix, stream it today).
Bong’s films are defined by an unconventional, genre-bending style that weaves in elements of humor, family connections and surreal happenings, and so it’s no great mystery why a certain Hollywood executive (ahem, Harvey Weinstein) would want to chop the film down to a sniveling nothing. Legend has it, Weinstein lobbied to cut 20 minutes before agreeing to a wide release. When Bong refused the cuts, they settled on a compromise: Bong’s original cut would stand, but now with a limited U.S. distribution. For Montanans, it’s a win-win: Instead of a watered down action picture, we get an off-kilter, brilliantly written meditation on the best and worst attributes of humanity, and we get to see it at the Wilma. This is the thinking man’s alternative to the new Transformers movie. With a solid R rating, you can see the ax come down on the head—no dumb robot violence or implied, off-screen danger for this picture!
If you think too hard about the logistics of a train containing its own fragile ecosystem housing hundreds of people that runs continuously for 17 years, you’re bound to find some problems, so just don’t do that. As a storytelling structure, the train provides a bizarre, linear and episodic unfolding of action. When the heroes conquer one car, they move onto the next one. From barber shops to protein bar factories to dance parties in progress, each car contains its own short story.
I’m only just now getting to mention some of the superb supporting characters, such as the Korean drug addicts/gate-opening experts and Alison Pill as the suspiciously cheerful schoolteacher. Then there’s Tilda Swinton in full-on character-actor mode as the groveling yes-woman. At one point, she takes out her teeth and gums it up for the camera in an action that does everything for tone and nothing whatsoever to move the plot forward. How much do you want to bet that was the first thing old Weinstein wanted to cut?
Snowpiercer continues at the Wilma.