If there’s anything this Fourth of July weekend has to say concerning film (and this whole month to some extent), it’s that there’s usually a better alternative out there. As the arguably worst franchise in the last decade pukes about in theaters everywhere, taking up precious screens, a hidden gem lies buried in just over 150 screens nationwide.
With the proper digging, Snowpiercer will reveal itself to the tenacious few who search for it as cinema gold, rich in genre thrills and highly satisfying as a thoughtful alternative to robot product placement.
After an experiment in global warming prevention freezes the entire planet, the few remaining human survivors take refuge on the Snowpiercer, a colossal, perpetually moving locomotion meant to weather the storm. Life on the Snowpiercer is good if you happen to be in the front cars, indulging on the spoils of life. For the rear car inhabitants, it’s a cramped nightmare of misery and oppression, as every effort is made to keep the established hierarchy going. After 17 years of rear-car life, reluctant leader Curtis (Chris Evans) has had enough, and with help from his right-hand man, Edgar (Jamie Bell), and mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) plans to take control of the train. By forging ahead, every dirty secret of this “perfectly balanced eco-system” comes to light.
Think of Bioshock set on a train, with the dark edge of movies like Looper and the smart social commentary akin to Planet of the Apes and you start to approach the concoction known as Snowpiercer. It’s a pure sci-fi yarn through and through, yet still balances its contemplative material with fun, visceral action.
And no, just because its sci-fi roots are strong doesn’t mean the movie isn’t accessible. Director Bong Joon Ho’s first American-made film should prove to be as enjoyable for aficionados as it is for the general audience. Snowpiercer removes itself from the mindless “action only” area of the genre we so often see these days by providing some classic quandaries on the human condition and the grey areas of classist systems.
But yeah, there’s also a lot of blood and barbarism.
The detail and situations in this post-apocalyptic world may be covered in grime and hardship but the film maintains a sense of heightened realism and dark comedy throughout. Things consistently teeter between serious and satirical (in a good way). A scene in the middle of the train with a peppy Allison Pill teaching school children some gruesome lessons perfectly highlights good satire and tickles the funny bone of farce in a most excellent way.
Themes and characterizations are deliberately exaggerated (cartoonish for some, possibly) but it’s all in the name of being more approachable. Tilda Swinton’s baffoonish Minister Mason is completely over the top, cockney accent and buck teeth in tow, but succeeds because she stands so far outside expectations, stealing every scene. Evans, the most grounded character of the lot, shines in a role that could be thankless in the wrong hands.
But even at its most outlandish or intense, Ho manages to keep all parts in line and moving on this strange beast with surprising grace. A lot happens in just over two hours, powering through cruel punishment, righteous rebellion, gross revelations, badass axe fights, comeuppance and a mournful confession or two, but you never once question it all. From the start, you’re along for the ride.
Did I mention this film is pretty great? Well there, I said it. It may be tough to track down (for now) but the reward far outweighs the risk. There will always be films based off toys and ones that star mugging comediennes that bubble to the surface on any given summer holiday. But if you look close enough, you might just find an outlier that beats all the rest.
Heck, maybe it’ll end up being one of the year’s best.
*Snowpiercer isn’t playing in many places ’round here yet but it will be soon. After initially opening in Minneapolis and Inver Grove Heights, the film has expanded to Eden Prairie and Rochester, with even more theaters to be announced starting this Friday, July 11. Better yet, Snowpiercer will be available on all major VOD services starting Friday as well. You now have no excuse.