Snowpiercer is the latest film from Korean director Bong Joon-ho, creator of the slightly overrated yet highest grossing Korean film ever, The Host. It’s a joint Korean and American film (based on a French graphic novel) and so features a diverse cast of characters, including a couple of the stars of The Host, Captain America, Billy Elliot, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt and that kid from Skins. I love this director – Memories of Murder was particularly good – and it’s a strong cast. Plus I love trains.
I think it’s fair to say that there is a bit of a Terry Gilliam influence to the film, one of the characters is even named after him in an apparent homage. In fact I would describe Snowpiercer as a cross between Twelve Monkeys and Children of Men, perhaps with a some Oldboy thrown in (Chan-wook Park is a producer on Snowpiercer, and though I am sure this is Bong Joon-ho’s vision it reminded me much more of Oldboy than any of his films, perhaps it was the scenes of extreme violence using tools in corridors). So those are three of the best films ever, Snowpiercer is fantastic for even evoking them. But Snowpiercer is not just a copy, it’s one of the most unique sci-fi films ever made. Oh and it reminded me slightly of Fortress, for my money the apex of prison breakout sci-fi cinema.
Before I get carried away with hype I should say that the film doesn’t end as strongly as it starts. I was watching open-mouthed for the first hour, but gradually over the course of the next hour the tempo of the film waned somewhat and the ending was slightly anticlimactic. I can understand why there was so much kerfuffle about cutting the film down, it doesn’t feel overlong exactly, but the pacing did feel problematic: so much great stuff happens in the first half and such a fast tempo is set that the exposition-heavy second half feels a bit having to take a pit-stop in the middle of a race when you just want to keep going. The film is almost like a computer game: as the heroes progress they go from one carriage to the next, each carriage revealing some new threat or oddity. At first these game levels are simply amazing, with a grotesque Tilda Swinton and her faceless army of axe-wielding sociopaths being a particular highlight, but they become somewhat less exciting each time and the ‘final boss’ fight occurs a good forty minutes before the end of the film. I don’t believe cutting the film was the answer (though I suspect I have a better tolerance of long films than some folk) but it was hard to shake the feeling that the film was supposed to be wrapping up after an hour and a half and the final payoff didn’t entirely work for me. Perhaps this is another way in which the film reminded me of Oldboy.
The acting was fantastic throughout, Kang-ho Song (one of actors from The Host, and also from the excellent The Good, The Bad and The Weird) was especially good as a messy-haired, somewhat deranged oddball (in a similar vein to Dae-su Oh from Oldboy!) Tilda Swinton was spectacular and I found Chris Evans pretty damn good too. He is perhaps not as charismatic as some other leading men, but – as everyone kept pointing out, he is a natural leader. I really liked Jamie Bell, and Vlad Ivanov was excellent in a non-speaking role. I think the plethora of good characters stems from the film’s graphic novel origins: graphic novels are excellent at creating memorable characters with limited amounts of screen time and dialogue. The ‘surrender or die’ tattoo moment is the sort of thing I love about comics, pure class.
There are a number of plot points that perhaps don’t make the most sense ever, but most of these can be explained away with a little creative thinking and a willingness to go along with it. After all this is a film set on a train that goes around the world and is powered by a perpetual motion engine; a technological improbability powered by a scientific impossibility. If you can accept that, then everything else should be easy. They probably have an overhead compartment full of battery chickens, for example.
This is the sort of film that I can only hope we see more of. It’s got a 1980s or 90s sci-fi feel to it, when films were allowed to have high budgets and a 15 or higher certificate. It’s got good cgi but it’s used sparingly, and the bulk of the action is old fashioned stunts and props. It doesn’t consider extended scenes of noise, explosions and blurry cgi as suitable substitutes for actual action. It has excellent characters, every single one has personality (or at least, a cool gimmick – same thing right?). It has a healthy dose of Korean weirdness (I think the sudden countdown in the middle of the brawl was my favourite part). It has an interesting plot which doesn’t patronise the audience, a great visual style reminiscent of some classic post-apocalypse films, a prison break out (I love those) and a train (I mentioned I love trains right? Trains are ace). Highly recommended.