With the summer blockbuster season in full tilt, there are tons of movie options to choose from. Fancy a comedy? 22 Jump Street has been getting solid reviews. Need to get the kids out of the house? How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a fantastic choice. You can even go see Transformers if you desperately need to. The only segment of the population left in the cold are the indie filmgoers. Period pieces, documentaries and subtitles are great but seeing a major release can feel like selling out to the Hollywood machine. There’s no coffee shop cred in seeing Godzilla. Luckily, there’s a solution in the form of Snowpiercers, the fifth feature from South Korean director Bong Joon-ho (Mother, The Host). Despite maddening shifts in tone, a couple of annoying performances and a class struggle tale pulled straight from Atlas Shrugged, Snowpiercers is the most distinctive and visually arresting action flick released so far this year.
In the year 2014, mankind has again screwed the pooch and pushed themselves to the brink of extinction. Thanks to a global warming solution that went too far, the Earth has been plunged into a new Ice Age. Mankind’s survivors are forced onto the Snowpiercer, a massive globetrotting train run by perpetual energy. Like any train with first, second and coach class cabins, the last remnants of humanity are either in the posh front or the miserably decrepit rear. With tensions running high and a brutal guard force keeping them down, it’s up to Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) to lead a revolution and make it to the front.
Taking up arms with Curtis is young Edgar (Jamie Bell) and Gilliam (John Hurt), a wise old sage who has staged past uprisings with little success. Evans doesn’t have much heavy lifting to do until the eye-opening third act, but he remains a steady and likeable lead, especially when dishing out some visceral hand to hand combat. Representing humanity’s elite is Wilford (Ed Harris), the train’s designer and Mason (Tilda Swinton), the woman tasked with keeping the lower class under control. Dressed like a cross between Daryl Hannah as a Kill Bill nurse and Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka, Swinton is uncomfortably bizarre. She delivers the role with enthusiasm and reckless abandon, but her “out there” character doesn’t quite fit in with the serious tone of the opening.
In fact, very few of Snowpiercer’s pieces sync, creating a chaotic and sometimes frustrating tone pendulum. One minute Evans is grimacing amongst his fellow refuges and the next, Swinton is delivering an over the top speech for comedic effect. Every scene looks like it was cut from a different film, making the full experience tough for the brain to process. If you get used to it, the final third reaps some rewards, but it may be an aggravating journey. The best way to describe it is strange and if you go into it with that word in mind, you’ll find the style much easier to stomach.
What Snowpiercer lacks in cohesion, it more than makes up for in visual splendor. Joon-ho’s blend of cartoony imagery with gritty realism gives the feature life and beauty. Once we leave the rear of the train, which looks like any standard set pulled from The Matrix, the cinematography opens up with life, color and impressive visual flair. The graphic and visceral action is engaging and serves as solid, bloody glue to keep the sometimes obvious story held in place. The movie suffers from a number of distracting plot holes, but thanks to some deft screenwriting, it all satisfyingly comes together in the final half hour.
Rollercoasters are the most fun when you let go of the lap bar and the same can be said for Bong Joon-ho’s latest feature. While a cheesy setup and bizarre jumps in tone make it difficult to digest, excellent cinematography and strongly choreographed action makes this worth the price of admission. When your friends ask you to see Transformers, recommend Snowpiercer instead. They may not fully “get it” but at least an evening of well-crafted visual fun will be had by all. Better yet, you won’t have to lie about what you saw last night when chatting up your film school buddies.
Score: 8 out of 10
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Jersey born and New York bred, Bill Tucker is a writer of short fiction, film reviews and articles across a variety of genres and media. He currently writes a regular movie column entitled “Behind the Cinematic Curtain” for Revolt Daily, contributes to a fashion blog for http://www.pop-market.com and has a number of short stories in various stages of publication. When not writing, he works as an IT Trainer for a fashion software company. He currently hangs his hat in Austin, Texas. Check out more of his work at http://www.thesurrealityproject.com.