If you loved Aeon Flux, the Chronicles of Riddick movies, V For Vendetta, or anything dystopian and anti-establishment, go see Snowpiercer.
The film premiered last August in South Korea. A well-made, intelligent sci-fi flick, it has all the features sci-fi nerds demand: a ruggedly hot hero (Chris Evans), a post-apocalyptic premise (the world has frozen over), John Hurt, and a smarter-than-anyone-else Asian. And buckets of violence.
At some point in the disastrous future, the remnants of the human race live on an enormous train. The tail end are lowlives living in slums, with little food and clothing, working for the wealthy and comfortable people in the front. If anyone in the the rear steps out of line, they get punished.
One lone, brawny, blue-eyed revolutionary (Evans) is tired of living on the bottom. He wants to make it to the front, tip the scale, and control the engine. He’s been on the train for seventeen years, ever since the world outside froze.
From there, it’s the oldest archetype in the world: the hero’s journey, fraught with obstacles, literally from one end of the massive train to the other. Outside, the ghostly remnants of ships and cities pass by, covered in ice.
If this story seems a little classic, a little overdone, that’s because it is, but be glad for it. It’s not low camp; it’s universal in the most serious sense. It’s the same core idea that compelled Marx and Engels to write The Communist Manifesto.
Time after time, our cultural fables show that the poor get tired of being poor, especially when the bourgeois live large on their shoulders. The only next step, in any situation — a hierarchical train, for instance — is la revolución.
Chris Evans flexes some acting muscle and has a great beard. But the shining light in this film is the indomitable Tilda Swinton, who does a toothy and terrifying messenger from “the head” — the conductor (Ed Harris).
Snowpiercer will never win an Oscar — the Academy hates genre flicks — but it avoids the easy pitfalls of lowbrow sci-fi. I imagine the director, Bong Joon-ho, thought to himself, “Let’s make a good movie that’s bloody and fun, because damn, it’s better than watching 22 Jump Street.“
Not-so-little-engines-that-could like Snowpiercer stand out as smart offerings in a milieu where action and sci-fi flicks (and truly most movies in general) deliver bad one-liners, bad acting, and bad camp. With a delicately textured, steampunk set by Ondrej Nekvasil, the film is shot in classic 35 mm. This will draw film students and movie snobs in New York and Los Angeles, but most Americans will have to hunt for the movie in small-release theaters. Many won’t find it. Who can compete with Melissa McCarthy’s stupid humor or Channing Tatum’s abs?
Go see Snowpiercer in a theater near you, if you can.