Any time a director assembles the sort of cast that includes two Oscar winners, two Oscar nominees, the star of an Oscar-nominated movie, and an action star with his own franchise, audience members can expect something of a high wire act in the making. As a character in the Weinstein Company’s indy-flavored scifi flick Snowpiercer attests with the frequency and wide-eyed fervor of a big tent revivalist – and so it is.
Looking around a bookstore in 2005, Korean director Bong Joon Ho came upon the French graphic novel Transperceneige which told the story of a group of survivors traveling around the world on a train following a global deep freeze. The survival of all life is threatened, a notion which captivated the director. So much so, he decided at his first opportunity to pursue the topic in cinematic form. And so he would in his first English-language film.
In Snowpiercer, the filmmaker takes audiences aboard mankind’s last redoubt, a passenger train designed and outfitted by a forward-thinking mechanical engineer named Wilford, a man who heeded the dire warnings of global warming when few others seemed to be paying attention. Wilford’s one-of-a-kind locomotive pulls a sanctuary on wheels where, outside, it’s the coming of another Ice Age; inside, all is warm, if cozy for only the wealthy, privileged and relative few.
Those who can afford the price tag travel in the veritable lap of luxury. Those who cannot occupy what amounts to little more than steerage; they subsist on protein bars that make a bowl of warm mush seem positively haute cuisine. The action picks up 17 years into the future following the point where life on Planet Earth ceases to exist as the temperature from pole to pole plummets. All aboard means all that’s left alive and breathing.
Faster than you can say tickets, please, this motion picture alters the definition of station as terminal to station as grounds for termination — as in dead, kick the bucket, punch the time card, adios, and sayonara.
Among those who hurtle along in what amounts to an incessant year-long global circumnavigation are characters portrayed by Chris Evans (Captain America),Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton), John Hurt (The Elephant Man), Octavia Spencer (The Help), and Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot). In something of a well-placed cameo, Ed Harris (The Truman Show) tackles the role of the engineering mastermind Wilford.
Easily the most precarious role belongs to Swinton who broaches the ridiculous in fashioning a bucktooth bureaucrat-cum-disciple dispensing lectures to the lower classes. She’s a librarian confronting daft pupils. In a role originally written for a man, she’s showy, memorable, effective, and oddly sympathetic. Think Miss Jane of TV’s The Beverly Hillbillies but with a bad wig.
Evans may seem an odd casting choice for a director known well to audiences who dig the macabre. When the topic sentence starts with films such as The Host (2006) and Mother (2009) an actor such as Evans – known for clean cut derring do as Captain America does not spring to mind. But the surprisingly versatile Evans delivers, unrecognizable as an odd sort of anti-hero. Bong Joon Ho saw the Boston-born actor in the indy film Puncture; the actor played a lawyer with a substance abuse problem, a role which convinced the director he’d found his leading man. Dark-haired and bearded here, Evans plays a man on a mission, part of the last car’s grimy and impoverished. His character becomes pivotal to a story line with a sort of time-released exposition as the plot approaches the engine.
Audiences would not be mistaken in considering the film’s racial diversity central to the core themes of the film. Ho has gone on record admitting he was influenced by the Rodney King beating by Los Angeles law enforcement officers in March 1991. But it was the pairing of class and socioeconomic themes Ho sought to spotlight in his script: the unwashed occupants struggling to subsist in the rear compartments as revelers toward the front live a lifestyle reminiscent of Studio 54.
First and foremost, Ho has said that “it all began with a train. This is a train movie.” And so it is. Almost but not quite entirely, the action takes place in the narrow confines of a moving train, and in that regard, the film carries with it an overbearing sense of claustrophobia not unlike that found in the submarine-interior sets of the features Das Boot and The Hunt for Red October. When passengers from the back finally find themselves facing open windows, the effect is momentarily blinding – startling for them and for the audience lulled into a sense of confinement for the two-hour plus ride.
That the film covers more than the standard running time is due in no small measure to a 250-member test audience in Paramus, New Jersey, which awarded unsatisfactory marks to the version shorter by nearly half an hour than the director’s cut. What results is more to Ho’s liking.
Moviegoers will find little to smile about in this picture. To say the tone remains rather bleak throughout should not be surprising. Humor can be found, however, in a fear the director felt early on, something he shared during a question and answer session. Ho recalls two days prior to filming that he was in a panic over what he might be making — that he and his director of photography were terrified. “What if this turns out to be a hallway film,” he remembers. Soon thereafter, he reassured himself that his fear was unfounded. “Many things can happen there,” he told himself. And so they do.
Snowpiercer runs two hours and six minutes and is rated R.