Film Review: ‘Snowpiercer’
Two decades into a second Ice Age, a few thousand human survivors live out their days aboard a state-of-the-art luxury train in “Snowpiercer,” an enormously ambitious, visually stunning and richly satisfying futuristic epic from the gifted Korean genre director Bong Joon-ho (“The Host,” “Memories of Murder”). A rare high-end sci-fi/fantasy pic made completely outside the studio system, and that even rarer case of an acclaimed foreign helmer working in English with no appreciable loss of his distinctive visual and storytelling style, Bong’s adaptation of French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige” reps a pricey investment ($40 million) for majority producer CJ Entertainment, but seems a downright bargain compared with the cost of forging such pics on Hollywood turf. A heavy marketing blitz combined with Bong and co-star Song Kang-ho’s considerable fan bases will drive strong biz at home (where the pic opens Aug. 1), if less than the whopping $64 million earned by “The Host” in 2006 — until recently, Korea’s all-time box office champ.
Offshore, “Snowpiercer” poses a somewhat trickier marketing challenge, given its hybrid art-movie/blockbuster nature, lack of audience familiarity with the source material, and the untested drawing power of top-billed Chris Evans outside his Captain America suit. But clever positioning along the lines of Sony’s campaign for the much less starry “District 9,” plus an assuredly warm fanboy reception, could just do the trick. The Weinstein Co., which controls the film for all English-speaking territories, has yet to announce a U.S. release date or major festival premiere.
Adapted by Bong and Kelly Masterson (“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”) from the 1982 graphic novel by authors Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, “Snowpiercer” has been brought to the screen with the kind of solid narrative craftsmanship, carefully drawn characters and — above all — respect for the audience’s intelligence rarely encountered in high-concept genre cinema except when directors like James Cameron, Christopher Nolan and Guillermo del Toro are at the helm. Indeed, Bong’s film owes something to “Titanic” in its vision of a crowded passenger vessel that functions as an elaborate microcosm of society itself, complete with all the same top-down class distinctions, only here rendered tip to tail. Oh, and ice presents no obstacle for the Snowpiercer; it smashes right through great, arctic blocks of the stuff as it circumnavigates our now-frozen planet on a high-altitude railway.
The train and the track are both the inventions of Wilford, a billionaire industrialist dismissed as a crank in his day but now having the last laugh, his unseen, Oz-like presence looming large over the denizens of the Snowpiercer and inspiring a fanatical degree of devotion in his fascistic minions (led by Tilda Swinton’s hilariously grotesque Mason, with pudding-thick Yorkshire accent and upper bridge work that speaks especially ill of British dental care). We begin in the caboose, where the great, soot-faced, Dickensian masses jostle for space and rumors of incipient class revolt stir the air. It isn’t the first time the have-nots have attempted to take control of the train, but previous efforts failed because no one managed to make it all the way to the engine room. This time, things will be different, promises Curtis (Evans), the revolution’s semi-reluctant instigator, though it’s clear to see he has the makings of a sturdy prole hero.