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Snowpiercer

D: Joon-ho Bong / 126m

Cast: Chris Evans, Kang-ho Song, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Ah-sung Ko, Octavia Spencer, Alison Pill, Ed Harris, Luke Pasqualino, Ewen Bremner, Vlad Ivanov, Clark Middleton, Emma Levie

In 2014 global warming has reached such a level it threatens the entire human race with extinction.  To combat this, scientists release a reversing agent, CW7, into the atmosphere.  To the world’s horror, CW7 destroys all life on the planet and returns it to the ice age.  The only survivors are those on a train that circumnavigates the globe without ever stopping, the brain child of reclusive Mr Wilford (Harris).  But even on the train there is a class system: those at the tail end exist in cramped, overcrowded conditions, while those at the front of the train live a life of conspicuous luxury.  Seventeen years later, the people at the tail are guided by Gilliam (Hurt), but place their trust for a planned revolution in the hands of Curtis Everett (Evans).  Aided by Edgar (Bell), Curtis is planning to reach the front of the train and take control of the “sacred engine”, thus allowing him control over the whole train (he is also receiving cryptic messages written on red paper from a mystery source).

When two of the tail people’s children are taken by the armed guards that oversee the tail section, the agony experienced by the mother of one, Tanya (Spencer), and the father of the other, Andrew (Bremner), prompts Curtis to seize his chance to move forward through the train earlier than planned.  At the first section, the de facto jail, they free Namgoong Minsu (Song), a security expert whose knowledge of the train and its systems will help them get through each door they come to; they also free his daughter, Yona (Ko).  As the tail people make their way from one car to the next, they discover all manner of disturbing facts about life on the train, and are hindered continually in their progress by Miss Mason (Swinton), Mr Wilford’s representative on the train.

Despite overwhelming odds, Curtis reaches the front of the train sections of the train and the gap between the people there and at the tail is thrown into sharp relief.  At a classroom run by Teacher (Pill), he learns more about Mr Wilford and his plan for the train, as well as learning that the person who is sending him the messages is part of the hierarchy he seeks to overthrow.  With Mr Wilford’s guards, as well as the citizens of the front sections, determined to stop him from reaching the “sacred engine”, Curtis is forced to make some difficult decisions to achieve his aim, but when he does he’s faced with an even more difficult, unexpected decision to make, one that threatens to overturn everything he’s ever believed about the train, and himself.

Snowpiercer - scene

Snowpiercer is an odd movie, a mix of high concept filmmaking supported by cod-literate meditations on the nature of existence and the need for balance in a world that’s a microcosm of the world we still live in.  It’s a long, uneven movie as a result, with an expected emphasis on bone-crunching action while it attempts to say something about a range of subjects, from rampant consumerism to notions of self-sacrifice to carefully monitored euthanasia to the morality of keeping one set of passengers in what amounts to a rigorously controlled ghetto.  Some of these aspects are handled adroitly (the euthanasia), others less so (the ghetto), but the movie is largely thought-provoking in its approach, and while some of the twists and turns can be seen a snow-covered mountain away, there’s still enough here to surprise the average viewer.

What stops the movie dead in its tracks sometimes (no pun intended), are the moments when something is revealed that immediately makes no logical sense.  One of the biggest of these moments occurs when Curtis and his companions reach the abattoir car, and there are row upon row of chicken carcasses on display – after seventeen years, really?  Another is why, considering the lethal sub-zero temperatures outside the train, none of the rails have ever split or buckled?  And the biggest flaw concerns the train itself and its route: was Mr Wilford so prescient he knew CW7 wasn’t going to work even before it was conceived, because the movie makes it seem as if everything was in place from the moment the reagent was launched.  (There are other moments that give pause for credulity but then the whole idea is inherently nonsensical; criticising it further would be like taking a blind man to task for failing to pin the tail on a donkey… that isn’t there.)

These lapses aside, there is still much to admire in Bong’s adaptation of the graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette (Rochette also supplies the artwork seen in the tail end of the train).  As Curtis makes his way to the “sacred engine”, discovering more and more unpalatable truths about the workings of the train, there is a marked sense that he is becoming physically more restricted than he was at the tail, despite the increase in space in which to move.  Bong makes being at the front just as bad as being at the end, if not worse, and Evans gives a performance that sees his character become more and more insular and compacted than he was at the beginning (he also gets to deliver an emotionally charged, yet chilling, speech towards the end that resonates even more when he reaches the “sacred engine”).  Evans is one of those actors who can easily subvert his handsome looks, and here his grimy appearance is offset by a physical, tightly coiled performance that fits the mood perfectly.  He’s ably supported by Swinton as the tombstone-dentured Mason (and in another, blink-and-you’ll-miss-her smaller role), Spencer as the mother obsessed with retrieving her child, and Song as the drug-addled security expert.  Bell, however, has little chance to make anything of Curtis’s young follower, while Hurt lends the necessary gravitas to a role that is as close to underwritten as you’d expect.

The depiction of a new ice age is effectively maintained throughout, and the cities the train passes through are thankfully anonymous.  The functions of the various train cars are imaginatively handled (the woman knitting in the garden car is a particular favourite), while the special effects are, for the most part, seamlessly integrated into the physical action.  Bong directs with a visual flair that suits the movie’s mise-en-scene, and despite filming in English for the first time, doesn’t miss a nuance or moment of subtle shading.  He’s ably supported by Kyung-pyo Hong’s often striking photography, and the tremendous production design by Ondrej Nekvasil, continually supporting the notion of people living in one place for so long and often surprising in its details as a result.  There’s also an impressive score by Marco Beltrami that skilfully avoids the musical clichés that usually clog up dystopian flavoured movies such as this.

Rating: 7/10 – not the sci-fi masterpiece some may have been expecting (the hype surrounding proposed cuts of twenty minutes for the US release hasn’t helped), Snowpiercer is an often thought-provoking movie that tries its best to add political and social content to its storyline without skimping on the action; sometimes awkward in its execution, this still has more going on than most sci-fi movies out there these days, and is well worth seeking out.

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