Tuesday, July 15, 2014

"Snowpiercer" (2013)

Starring Chris Evans, Song Kang-Ho and Jamie Bell
Written by Bong Joon-Ho and Kelly Masterson
Directed by Bong Joon-Ho
Rated R - Violence, strong language
Running Time: 126 Minutes

In 2031, seventeen years after the world was devastated by a failed experiment to reverse global warming, the human survivors live on a special train that continuously circles the globe. People in the front live a decadent life of parties, good food and endless comfort. People in the back live in a world of darkness, being fed rationed protein bars each day at the whim of brutal guards.

Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) lives in the tail section. With his friend Edgar (Jamie Bell) and mentor Gilliam (John Hurt), Curtis is planning a revolution: he'll take a group of men forward and seize the engine at the front of the train, which is operated by a mysterious man known as Wilford.

Between Curtis and his objective are dozens of cars filled with guards who will not hesitate to use lethal force, and leaders who will not allow him to upset their delicate balance.

Based on a French graphic novel, "Snowpiercer" is a Korean movie with a multinational cast. There was some controversy before the film's American release as the distributor wanted to cut some 20 minutes of footage. This delayed the film's release in the US for some time, but it finally arrived in theaters a few weeks ago, as a limited run. It is also available ondemand at the same time.

Firstly, "Snowpiercer" is a fine-looking film. With a budget of only $40 million, some of the CGI effects aren't quite up to the best of the best, but they're still quite good. The interiors of the train, however, are all fantastic. Each section of the train, each car, is unique both in design and function.

The tail end of the train where the poor people live is cluttered, crowded and dirty. Naked pipes, broken equipment are littered about, as though the space weren't actually meant for habitation. Personal effects are sparse - at one point, Curtis makes a deal with a small boy for his protein bar, promising him a full hour with "the ball," which turns out to be the tattered innards of a soccer ball. The people wear old, tattered clothing and are covered in grime as one might expect. There's a decided lack of color or vibrance.

The people in the front are dressed in fine furs, get their hair and nails done, and there's even a dentist and a tailor. These forward sections of the train are full of life, luxuriously designed and full of color. Some of these sections are really just awesome to behold on a big screen - the yellow of the sauna, the deep blue of the aquarium, the greens of the hydroponics. The rave section. Even the functional but elegant design of the engine compartment and the horrifying secret it holds. "Snowpiercer" is fantastic to look at.

Thankfully, the script holds up just as well. It's just as full of detail as the train itself, taking the time to make sure you understand the main characters, their motivations. Even minor characters like Franco the Elder (Vlad Ivanov) are made clear through imagery. The nature of the train, how it runs, and why, are slowly unraveled as Curtis makes his way closer and closer to the front. Despite its rather simple setup, "Snowpiercer" is more complex than it looks.

The film's action sequences also get smaller as we go forward, but no less thrilling, as the film inverts the typical action movie structure. The closer Curtis gets to the front, the fewer allies he has with him. A couple of the later fights are more intimate, shocking affairs rather than the outright brawls at the start. It helps give everything more emotional heft and atmosphere, rather than filling the space with bigger and bigger action.

The script is also excellent at delivering some dark humor. One of the film's oddest and best scenes involves Curtis and his gang encountering a section devoted to an elementary school for first-class children passengers. In this car, a young, pregnant teacher cheerfully indoctrinates the children to believe that the poor people at the back of the train are "lazy" and "lie about in their own shit," mooching off the goodwill of the richer parts of the train - that common welfare myth spouted here with a smile and almost hilarious enthusiasm by a young girl.

The humor is dark, but it is there. Writers Bong Joon-Ho and Kelly Masterson use it to drive the film's central social commentary about the haves versus the have-nots. Some of the film's laugh-out-loud moments will make you feel bad afterward. And some of the film's twists will leave you shocked and possibly feeling sick inside. It's not quite on the level of the reveal at the end of "Oldboy," but there's a darkness to this film that should not be spoiled. It gives a lot of richer meaning between the relationships of two of the main characters.

The cast deserves praise. Chris Evans brings a lot of what makes his Captain America so watchable, but without the aw-shucks 1940s optimism. No, Curtis is more desperate and the secret he holds inside makes him hate himself. But at the same time, he's a leader and the people look to him. John Hurt as Gilliam, another leader of the resistance, does a fine job as well. He believes in Curtis, nurtures him, and acts in a very fatherly manner. He classes up the room in every scene he's in, even dressed in rags and covered in muck.

Jamie Bell provides a good amount of comic relief as Curtis' friend Edgar, who is too young to remember the world before and is eager to fight. He idolizes Curtis, and it shows in both the script and in Bell's performance. Octavia Spencer is wonderful as Tanya, a mother trying to find her son who was taken from her at the beginning of the film. There's a quietness about her, but once she demands Curtis allow her to join the fight, she becomes fierce in her search.

Also excellent are Soon Kang-Ho and Go Ah-Sung as Noomgang and Yona, a father and daughter. Noomgang helped design the train and knows how to disable the locks on the doors. He and his daughter are also drug addicts and she might be clairvoyant. Yeah, there's some weird stuff in this movie that you wouldn't see if this were from Hollywood.

Tilda Swinton appears as Mason, an administrator who oversees disciplinary actions in the tail section. She's wonderful, hiding menace behind a cloak of showmanship and 'upper-class' manner. She helps make "Snowpiercer" feel like some weird, twisted adult version of "The Hunger Games."

"Snowpiercer" is full of brutal violence, but also intriguing characters populating a world that has some fascinating twists to reveal. At no point does it drag, and you're always moving forward to learn something new. It's visually rich, totally entertaining, and has more to say than your typical summer action film.