From the moment Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer started, we knew exactly what we had come to see. This apocalyptic thriller began dark and ended darkly, every moment in between reminding us that this film is not for the faint of heart. Even with a somewhat anti-climactic and brutal ending, Snowpiercer was a thrilling film, filled with fantastic performances – some from unexpected places – and some of the best filmmaking techniques seen this year. Fans of Park Chan-wook will be enthralled by the look, feel, and the intensity of the film, but audiences without such tendencies might be lost in the dystopia of it all.
Snowpiercer begins with very little preamble of what led to the state of humanity, which is part of the brilliance. Scientists, in a bid to end global warming, created something to cool the Earth’s atmosphere. Instead of leveling everything out, the device sent the planet into a nuclear winter, and the planet now sits frozen solid as the last of humanity lives together on an ark-train traveling around the world once a year. Society has taken a turn for the worst, however, as a strong caste system sees those towards the front of the train prospering while those at the back are treated like slaves. Such is survival, until Curtis (Chris Evans) decides that enough is enough and leads a band of back-car revolutionaries on a battle to the front.
Even with such a great story filled with really interesting characters, Snowpiercer slightly fell down when it came to the ending. After the soul-rattling journey to the front, Curtis’ meeting with the god-like Wilford (Ed Harris) feels too much like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to truly fit with the story we just experienced. The ending was a strange mix of cheese and difficult images, and though it didn’t feel disjointed visually from the rest of the film, the downbeat Wizard of Oz reveal was a bit too on the predictable side. Unfortunately, the ending just didn’t fit with the rest of the film, and the last 30 minutes or so suffered because of it.
It is the filmmaking elements surrounding the story of Snowpiercer that make it a strong, sad, and brilliant piece of cinema. The way Bong sets everything up – from the dirty, run down setting to showing how the people lived – was incredibly detailed and produced a great sense of pity, especially for Curtis and his group. Bong also kept us with our main characters from the back and made their experiences ours rather than making us as the audience autonomous and omniscient. The front of the train to us, as it is for the main characters, became this mythical, almost heavenly place to which everyone wants to go, and we wanted to go there just as badly as Curtis did. The film kept us engaged with whom we were supposed to engage with, not jumping from point A to point D, which made the journey we took with the characters even more immersive.
Along with the outstanding filmmaking techniques are some really fantastic performances. Octavia Spencer gives one of the most powerful performances we’ve seen from her to date, filled with exactly the right amount of desperation from her strong-willed character without going overboard. Tilda Swinton was brilliantly pompous and elitist, almost like a harsh, realist Effie Trinket, and John Hurt gave a solid performance as the old beating heart of the rebellion, while Jamie Bell gave a good performance but wasn’t really a prominent figure.
The real surprise of the film was the performance out of Chris Evans as Curtis. Flying in from Captain America, Evans surprised us all with his intensity and depth, embodying in his body the immense struggle of living in the dregs of the soul-crushing back car. He brought such a profound sense of self-hatred to Curtis, and his speech near the end was delivered with bucket loads of it, making it hard to not think about his performance long after the film has ended. Evans is one of the main reasons to see Snowpiercer, as his performance will completely wipe out all thoughts of Marvel.
Bong clearly took some pointers from his producer when filming Snowpiercer, as it is Chan-wook’s influence that made the film look and feel the way it did. Not only was a lot of detail put into the sets, costumes, and props, but also the cinematography is some of the most unique seen this year. The whole film looked and felt like the original Oldboy, the almost dissonant camera angles drawing our attention as well as making us think about why the frame sits the way it does. Each one is different from the next, and they created a unique and powerful looking film.
Even though the ending caused the overall story of the film to almost fall flat, it is the performances and the incredible filmmaking techniques that make Snowpiercer one of the most interesting pieces of cinema this year. Chris Evans gives an amazingly strong performance, and the intensity of the cinematography, the directing, and the total attention to detail make it a really fantastic cinephile film.(3.5 / 5)
(Photos copyright: Moho Film, Opus Pictures)