Sunday, July 6, 2014

Crazy Train: SNOWPIERCER


Snowpiercer is a smorgasbord of sci-fi ideas and images. The plot is simple, but its world of pulpy imagery and thoughts are not. The thrilling film imagines a future in which the Earth has frozen over. International efforts to combat global warming were too much, too late. They backfired, covering the world in a thick, uninhabitable winter. Seventeen years later, several hundred survivors, all that remains of humanity, live in a futuristic, heavily armored, self-sustaining, climate-controlled train a billionaire built, the lengthy locomotive endlessly circling its tracks. Brutal guards carefully maintain order inside. The billionaire industrialist who ordered the train and the tracks built sits at the controls. The rich get to live in luxury in the front cars, mindlessly worshiping his capitalist impulse. They paid for their spots. The poor are huddled in squalid conditions in the caboose. They were lucky to get on board in the first place. Perpetual poverty is the price they pay. It is a blunt force allegory primed to explode.

Equal parts pleasantly preposterous and wickedly intriguing, the film is the rare sci-fi film that starts fascinating and maintains that level of interest throughout, getting better, richer, and more surprising as it goes along. It hurtles forward with imagination and momentum. We meet a reluctant hero (Chris Evans), a tortured back-of-the-train citizen who is fomenting a revolt. Gathering allies (a fine international cast including John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, Song Kang-Ho, and Ko Ah-Sung), the revolution smashes forward, aiming for the engine room at the very front of the train. The movie fights its way forward with them, car after car, each serving a different function in the train’s ecosystem. The set design and action choreography changing with each car – a food factory, a garden, a classroom, a prison – bounces nicely off the consistent claustrophobic dimensions that remain the same. Dumped into the moving vehicle with scant background, we learn more about how this society operates, who lives there, and why they’re in this mess as we storm through.

Along the way, we meet some fabulous villains, pawns of the train’s corporate dictator and founder. The unseen force that is the head of the train radiates backwards through his soldiers and his minions. (Eventually, we see him, and he does not disappoint, but to spoil who plays him and what he’s like would rob you of a pleasant surprise.) Most memorable is the sniveling, condescending, ice-cold officer (an nearly unrecognizable Tilda Swinton) who coos over the aristocratic excess and luxurious hoarding of the rich and snarls with glee at the conditions of the poor. As heroes and villains are slowly fleshed in and the full splendor and horror of the train is bit by bit revealed, the movie takes on darker, more powerful emotional underpinnings to its more intellectual allegorical force.

Shot with dark humor and rattling with gushes of artfully applied blood, this is an exciting, impactful sci-fi actioner that sleekly tracks forward, finding twists and complications every step of the way. The actors give tough, memorable genre performances, types done right. The camera finds cutting away as valuable as lingering on chaos. Cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo's mix of shooting styles finds deliberate lateral moves as tense as jangly hand-held work. Ondrej Nekvasil and Stefan Kovacik's production design creates an immersive world, enveloping and all-consuming in its detail. Each new car is a revelation. From the prisoners kept in massive metal drawers, to the creepy-crawly secret of the underclass’ protein rations, to the Gilliam-esque warped environments of the rich and comfortable, this is a film of wonderfully thought-through spaces on which the stage is set for resonant, expressive, satisfying conflict.

Snowpiercer represents the modern economics of global film production at its finest. It’s a multinational ensemble working with Bong Joon-ho, a great South Korean director, filming in Prague and creating visual effects in London and Vancouver, an English-language adaptation of a 1980’s French comic. The final product is fantastic international multicultural synthesis, bigger and more idiosyncratic than most of what makes it to movie screens. It’s immensely satisfying to sink into a film so intricately designed and find images and ideas at once familiar and foreign. Bong Joon-ho, with his previous off-kilter genre efforts like 2006’s creature feature The Host and 2009’s murder mystery Mother, showcased his great eye for striking pulp visions. Here, with moments from a man punished by having his arm stuck out an exterior hatch and frozen off to a fight in total darkness between resourceful rioters and thugs with hatchets and night-vision goggles, he's made a film with a new jolt of surprise and imagination behind every doorway.

As we smash forward with righteous fury on the heels of the uprising, the screenplay by Bong and co-writer Kelly Masterson raises interesting questions amidst hugely entertaining excitement. Is it best to stay quiet and know your place in what is clearly a corrupt system, hoping for marginal improvement? Or is it better to blow it all up and start again? Snowpiercer is actually interested in interrogating these questions rather than using them as tantalizing flavoring for its premise and then discarding them once the action starts. It’s part of the fun. This is a rich experience, tremendously entertaining, funny, sad, and thrilling, with plenty of personality that doesn't sacrifice thoughts for thrills or vice versa. It’s one of the most involving and compelling science fiction films in recent memory, a great ride that moves and moves.

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