Snowpiercer, the new action sci-fi thriller opening this week is one of the best movies of the year so far, and that's because it impresses upon you a world of originality and creativity that makes it something that you haven't actually seen before. And in this spring and summer of sequels and superheroes, that in itself is a desperately needed jolt to the system, when you can sit and watch a movie, and be reminded what it's like to not know what's going to happen next or feel that the story will ultimately follow a formula, even if there are dashes of cleverness along the way. No, this is a true original, and we have South Korean director Bong Joon-ho to thank for it.
Joon-ho (who directed acclaimed films Memories of Murder and The Host, both highly recommended) has his own style, and in his first English-language film with mostly American and British actors (although he brings along South Korean star Song Kang-ho in a small role) he doesn't cater in the slightest to western tastes. This film was delayed months due to a battle over the final cut between Joon-ho and distributor Harvey Weinstein, which Joon-ho eventually won, determined not to cut his film to cater to American audiences, no matter how much it may lose in box office appeal. Well, having now seen the film the way it was supposed to be seen, I'm glad they haven't butchered it, as it maintains that distinctive tone of Joon-ho's films that make them stand apart from the crowd. There's a slightly surreal, somewhat over the top, faux campiness to some scenes, with jarring tonal shifts in brutal violence or philosophical grandstanding in others, but it remains specifically South Korean in flavor, and though that may not be to everyone's tastes, the experience is all the better for it.
Chris Evans stars in a near future (the year is 2031) in which global warming has destroyed the earth, turning it into a swirling polar vortex uninhabitable for human kind. What remains of humanity has been ushered onto a kind of bullet train, miles long with thousands of residents, all of whom have been segregated and put in their "pre-ordained" places, with the abused working class citizens slogging away in the tail end, fed disgusting "protein bars" made out of bugs and insects, while the upper class slovens hang out in the various other cars, which are made up by spectacular sets that show us pools, saunas, greenhouses, nightclubs, and classrooms of indoctrinated children filled with bright, neon lights and wildly colorful costumes that make these elites seem like escapees from the Hunger Games universe. Evans is Curtis Everett, leader of an outcast group among the bottom-feeders who plan to rebel and make their way forward through the cars to the "sacred engine," which is where they can control the train and take back their lives from the oppressors. This kind of revolution has been tried and failed before, but with an obvious limited supply of weaponry in this environment, the soldiers who put down the workers may be close to finally being taken out of commission. Tilda Swinton plays Minister Mason, assistant to Mr. Wilford, the creator of the train and God-like figure in this universe, and in typical Tilda Swinton fashion, she goes all out with a nutty, bizarre and insanely campy performance that's as entertaining to watch as anything else on the screen, and that's saying a lot.
The visuals are striking in this film, and worth the price of admission alone. Joon-ho still appreciates the art of set design, as the creation of the train, with all its different cars is like walking into a new room in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory with every door Curtis manages to unlock. He does so with the help of gate opener Minsu (Kang-ho), an upper class citizen who's been drugged into a blissed out oblivion by the elites with his daughter Yona (Ko Ah-sung). The two actors help to blend the largely American cast with a South Korean perspective, but every actor who shows up gets a juicy bit part to play (watch out for Alison Pill and Ed Harris in particular, the latter of whom's Truman Show-esque role is just the latest in the actor's recent habit of playing parts that recall his most famous earlier performances). There is some CGI in this, seamlessly blended with the art direction to include absolutely breathtaking shots of a frozen and desolate planet that Wilford claims will kill anyone who sets foot on it, but will it really? There's some mystery that has to be solved in that question, but the plot twists are mostly secondary, and I don't even care if they make sense or not- the allegorical details get a little too messy and complicated to keep track of, as a lot of high minded science fiction does (this material was adapted from a French graphic novel). The movie itself is about the action, the set-up, and most of all, the train. It's a beautiful, thrilling and exciting experience that I guarantee you will be unlike any other action movie you'll pay to see this summer. So seek it out and give it a chance, if you're interested in something different. It may surprise you.
* * * 1/2