An English adaptation of a French graphic novel by a South Korean director, Snowpiercer is an apocalyptic future tale whose journey to release is almost is crazy and interesting as the film itself. Released in most countries in 2013, it never made it to the US at the behest of its producer Harvey Weinstein. He wanted director Bong Joon-ho make some heavy edits, which were refused and a lack of faith in the finished article lead to an initially tiny US release.
Set in 2032, Snowpiercer imagines a world after a cataclysmic event caused by World governments in an attempt to counter global warming. The effect is that almost all of the human population is wiped it in a never-ending winter. The only survivors are packed aboard a high-speed super train, developed and built by a somewhat mad genius named Wilfort. The train is broken down into a simplistic class structure, with first class passengers living the high life at the front and a poor, down-beat class living in a makeshift shanty town in the tail. Everyone has their place and their role to fulfill, but tired of being treated badly the tail class plan a rebellion. Lead by Curtis (Chris Evans), Edgar (Jamie Bell) and Gilliam (John Hurt), the rebels must avoid capture by Mason (Tilda Swinton) and attempt to find computer hacking genius Namgoong Minsoo (Song Kang-ho) to help them progress to the front of the train in order to capture the sacred engine.
The easiest way to describe Snowpiercer is as a Terry Gilliam film. It playfully introduces interesting science fiction ideas and wraps them up in an action film dynamic. The fact that Hurt's character shares Gilliam's name can hardly be a coincidence and there is more than enough reference and homage to films like Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen to be ignored.
While Gilliam (the director) is prone to wildly uneven films, Bong Joon-ho creates a taut and suspenseful action thriller that moves along as quickly as the train itself. At it's heart is the somewhat anti-heroic Curtis, given true depth by a never-better Evans and his personal reasons for doing what he does might be one of the biggest twists in the whole narrative.
Alongside him are a cast of supporting characters who tread the line between insane and farcical beautifully, the most notable of which is Tilda Swinton's Mason. A character so bizarre, that even her deep Northern accent accentuates her unusualness. She steps onto the tail of the train like some kind of Yorkshire dictator, all magnified glasses and front teeth. It really is a joy to watch an actor of such talent really cutting loose with a character.
But as good as the international cast are, it's Joon-ho who is the real star of Snowpiercer. He manages to blend big science fiction ideas into a more routine action narrative. The film is all about momentum, the endless push forward by the disillusioned, on a train that always pushes forward, but whom suffer continual setbacks. Combine this with his masterful artistic style and the constant comments on the nature of capitalism among other things and Snowpiercer is one of the most original films to be released in years.
Joon-ho's decision not to cut away at the art he has created seems like it was the correct decision as everything within the film helps to build on the central premise wonderfully. As Allison Pill's lunatic school teacher describes it when talking about the history of the train, "a blockbuster performance with a devilishly unpredictable plot." If anything, that undersells the finished film.
The studios may not have had faith in it, but Snowpiercer is one of the most original, yet familiar science fiction action blockbusters going. It would be equally at home in a multiplex and an art house cinema and needs to be seen to be believed.