‘Snowpiercer’ has drive, vision

July 27, 2014
Tilda Swindon in "Snowpiercer."

The summer box office of 2014 has dipped, sending prognosticators wildly suggesting just why audiences aren't flooding the theaters. Everything from quality of films to a poor economy to World Cup fever has been blamed. The truth is, there are a number of quality films that are being released, but with the current money-driven aspect of show business, not all of them are released in theaters; some are sent straight to other platforms.

Take "Snowpiercer," for example, which has just been released on demand this week. While the studios decided to give up their theater space to tepid sex comedies ("Sex Tape") and sequels to two films that no one cared about to begin with, "Snowpiercer" boasts a red-hot director (Korean phenom Bong Joon-ho, who made the exciting monster movie "The Host," not the sucky young-adult pic that was released last year). It also stars some fairly established names: John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell and Captain American himself, Chris Evans.

It also boasts stunning visuals, tons of action, and a topical storyline, and has been earning raves in the festival circuit at which it first played. But it's not a typical summer blockbuster by studio definitions, so it instead makes its premiere right in your living room.

Based on a French sci-fi graphic novel of the same name, "Snowpiercer" is the kind of punk-attitude sci-fi film that we used to see more of in years past ("Brazil," "The Fifth Element," "12 Monkeys"), and I am sure it is no coincidence that's why one of the characters is named Gilliam (after the director of two of those three films). Its premise is simple, bizarre, and simply bizarre: after a failed 2014 attempt to combat global warming, Earth is sent back to an ice age. That was also the year Wilford Industries unveiled a globe-circiling train that acts as sort of a perpetual motion machine that can blast through any and all frozen objects.

We are introduced to our characters after 17 years aboard this mass transit machine, only to find that classes of people have been segregated to portions of the train: high societry up front, low class near the caboose (naturally). And this is where revolution is being plotted.

The elderly Gilliam (played by John Hurt) and Curtis (played by Chris Evans) begin to stir the citizenry in an attempt to seize control of the engine.

It all sounds a bit silly in print, I understand, but it works metaphorically. The authoritarian structure of classism, a faux "middle class" (which really in nothing more than a buffer between the very rich and the very poor), and the elite money ruling all is a rather obvious crtique on our current living structure.

The fact that it takes place on a train that essentially goes around in circles is an amusingly simple exclamation mark. Joon-ho tosses in a number of nonsensical, absurdist flourishes that truly add to the madness. The train setting would seem stifling when it comes to the numerous battle sequences staged within, but he presents them in a manner that is thrilling and claustrophobic.

All the main performers help shovel coal into this film's engine, with Hurt playing a role that he has inhabited for decades (the wise prophet who has been discarded as a fool), and Swinton having another blast in the role of "peacekeeper" Minister Mason, who is sadistically comedic throughout. But it is Evans who truly ignites the film, in a role providing him more depth and complexity than he has been able to show in the "Captain America" and "Avengers" films.

"Snowpiercer" has a drive and vision that few of this summer's preformatted, market-tested tent-pole pictures have demonstrated. It's not a perfect film, but gambles in just the right places to distinguish itself as a solid slice of dystopian sci-fi that will undoubtedly gain momentum as word of mouth spreads.

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