Sunday, July 6, 2014

Snowpiercer: A Smart and Strange Summer Train Ride

     Snowpiercer is one of those rare summer spectacles: a film that is unique and original, a risky proposition among a sea of stinky sequels and safe bets. Making his English-language debut, director Bong Joon-ho (who has impressed me before with monster-movie mayhem in The Host) skillfully crafts a weird thrill ride about rocket-fast train and class warfare, and it contains some of the better action scenes this side of The Raid 2. It has echoes of some recent Hollywood blockbusters (like The Hunger Games or Elysium), but it's fully its own creature--a strange beast with a mixture of themes and cultures that completely stands out among American cinema's recent cardboard cut-out clones.
     An experiment to end global warming has caused an ice age that almost has wiped out the entirety of Earth's population. The only survivors make it onto a train that flies along a global railway system powered by a mysterious man and his perpetual motion machine. The basics: the rich live in luxury at the front of the train, the poor people in the rear. Guards periodically arrive in the back of the train, giving our dirty downtrodden disgusting protein blocks (they look like old cranberry sauce) and occasionally taking children for unknown reasons. At the tip of the train, a mysterious man named Wilford resides, and his rule is law.
     Everything is not swell, and a rebellion is brewing: led by our humble hero Curtis (Chris Evans, better known as Captain America), the less-fortunate come up with a plan to bust through the guards and gates to overtake the train. To do so, they need the help of an engineer, Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) who spends all of his time sniffing a mind-altering drug called Kronol, and his maybe-psychic daughter Yona. With their help, they attempt to move through the seemingly-mile-long train car by car. This is one of those films that mixes humor and shock and violence with a surreal skill. You just can't wait to see what is behind the next door, and it's always surprising.
     There is some awesome action in Snowpiercer, violent hand-to-hand combat with sharp weapons that is directed with noticeable excitement by Bong Joon-ho. There are plenty of villainous characters, but the most memorable is Tilda Swinton, with her fake teeth and sheer disregard of anyone who is against the man behind the curtain, Wilford. I feel like I now measure all film and television action with The Raid 2, which completely blew me away earlier this year. And Snowpiercer never reaches the tension that The Raid 2 managed. But it didn't need to: the sheer strangeness and fun that Snowpiercer provides more than makes up for it.
     The film doesn't reach for perfection; consequently, it's not perfect: the political messages in Snowpiercer are just a backdrop for the action-adventure story and the excitement to see what weird thing is contained in the next car. And some of the special effects (mostly the outside views of the train barreling through snowdrifts and tunnels) are far from stellar. I also didn't love the ending. But these thing's don't take the enjoyment away from the weird ride. If Snowpiercer teaches us one thing, it's that we need more foreign and unique ideas thrown into American cinema. Ten years from now, I want to be watching more films like this one--not Transformers 8: Transforming Yet Again.     (A-)

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