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Who doesn’t know an underdog story when they see one?

Snowpiercer is going to be a weird one for some audiences. Being that it’s directed by Joon-ho Bong, it is well in keeping with the Korean cinematic penchant for tonal shifts and plenty of space for tangents and characterization. In American hands, Snowpiercer would be a relatively straightforward allegorical science fiction film and likely half as interesting. I don’t mean to disparage American filmmakers or say they are uncreative. I just think that the studio system tends to stifle the anarchy of vision that Snowpiercer often indulges.

When it doesn’t work, Korean movies that do a lot of tonal shifts end up cacophonous, nonsensical, and silly. When it does work, it yields a particular (and peculiar) flavor of movie that shows just what we’re missing when these movies don’t get exposure on our side of the world. It’s also a lesson to people who are trying to make complex, character-rich sci-fi whether it’s movies, comic books like the one this is based on, or whatever.

Because of its broad and colorful cast of characters mixed with those deft, expertly maneuvered tonal shifts, Snowpiercer feels vital and unique even alongside the glut of “original” genre and science fiction films that have been so popular of late. Because of that uniqueness and its tendency to be surprising, especially in terms of tone, I’ve here written one of my most spoiler conscious reviews ever.

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Yeesh.

In 80’s style exposition cards, the film tells us that global warming caused humanity to try a desparate solution: using a gas to cool the planet down. The solution backfired, causing a global ice age that quickly killed everything and everyone except for a few hundred people on a train known as the Rattling Ark (would have been a great title for the movie itself).

On the train, the poor and filthy have-nots live in the tail section while the affluent and hedonistic haves live in the front. All is directed by a reclusive genius, the inventor of the train and it’s perpetual motion engine, Charles Wilford (Ed Harris). He rules from the Engine, which is referred to with religious fervor by his mouthpiece, Mason (Tilda Swinton).

As the film begins, the Tail people are preparing for another in a long line of revolutions undertaken over the 17 years that the train has been the last vestige of humanity. We see how the armed guards are abusive, and how the Front people occasionally come to dole out barbaric punishments and also to steal children.

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Swinton delivers.

This time, they are led by the determined, haunted Curtis (Chris Evans) who has a plan to rescue a security officer called Nam (Kang-ho Song) who designed the train’s redundant locking door system. Exchanging a drug called Chrono (made from industrial waste), Curtis and his companions secure Nam and his daughter’s help in their push to the front of the train.

What follows is a series of adventures, some comedic and most brutal, as they pass through the various cars (many of which are themed, for example one is a children’s school and another an aquarium/sushi bar). As they push forward, backstory and exposition and characterization are doled out in tantalizing nuggets that keep the momentum of both plot and theme moving forward.

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The elusive, badass Grey.

Given the tonal shifts in the movie, the actors have a lot of ground to cover. Tilda Swinton is a complete natural at it. Her performance is probably the most bizarre and most enjoyable in the film. Evans is a stoic, reluctant leader and feels a bit like a cliche until later in the film when he gives a haunted monologue about his past, which serves several purposes and ties up a few loose ends even as it justifies his reluctant leader schtick completely. It’s a fucking heavy scene and Evans is competent, though I think he could have gone bigger to really sell it. This is a movie made for scenery-chewing, but Evans remains the reserved and understated center. That could very well have been intentional.

Serving in memorable sidekick roles are Edgar (Jamie Bell), Grey (Luke Pasqualino), Tanya (Octavia Spencer, who is great in this), Yona (Ah-sung Ko) and Gilliam (John Hurt). Edgar’s backstory, delivered by Curtis in his big monologue, is totally fucking heartbreaking. The more I think about it, the more that monologue completely reframes characterizations and events throughout the film.

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An entire train car devoted to rude, privileged children.

There’s a lot of symmetry in Snowpiercer. Much of it is stylistic (a cheesy bit with bullets and windows), but some of it is grounded in character and entirely thematic (Curtis’s thing about his arms). This underscores the surface-level superficiality of the allegorical thrust of the film and helps the thematic wheel turn round again, just when you think that Snowpiercer is going to utterly commit to Hobbesian misanthropy.

And it is kind of a misanthropic film. The violence is brutal, but the train has had so many revolutions that it’s almost civil. As civil as fighting axes with rusty pipes could ever conceivably be, I guess. Then as you get deeper into this fucked up society and start connecting the parallels to our world, it gets even worse. Protein bars made of bugs stand in for the fast food and processed shit that the underclass of Western civilization subsists on. The religious fervor with which the train’s engine and Wilford himself are treated becomes a parallel of the pseudo-religious cults of personality (and bastardized Christianity) that are common in North America.

And even as you suspect that the whole thing is headed toward some kind of cannibalism reveal, you find that it’s a lot worse and a lot closer to home than you thought. Just when you think Joon-ho Bong is trying to convince you that people are the worst and they all deserve to die if the alternative is the ecosystem Wilford has created, he pulls back and gives a little glimmer hope (if not necessarily for humans).

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These two are pretty entertaining and somehow apart from the carnage and misery around them.

But all this isn’t to say that Snowpiercer is a relentlessly grim movie. In fact, it has a lot of joking around and levity. So much so that you find yourself led along by the movie and surprised by how much you feel for this or that character death or relationship. For being two hours long and full of character stuff, Snowpiercer is remarkable for its tight plotting. This means that little in-character moments and a touch of humor go a long way toward setting up and paying off bigger moments and reveals.

If you want some kind of reference point for Snowpiercer, it would have to be Terry Gilliam. It’s no accident that John Hurt’s character is called Gilliam (and maybe his self-sacrifice is meant to be a meta reference to Gilliam also). Snowpiercer feels a lot like 12 Monkeys and especially Brazil. It’s got that industrial aesthetic, that layer of silly and grotesque, and that surprising social commentary that is trite on the surface but pays dividends the further in you let it lead you.

It also owes heavily to The Matrix trilogy. From the desire for freedom from confinement and control, to the realization that the struggle for freedom is just another manufactured system of control (that’s as spoilery as I’ll get, I guess)… you’ll notice a lot of similar ground covered here. In fact, I’d say the confrontation with Wilford owes a great deal to the Architect scene in The Matrix Reloaded. If that turns you off, sorry to hear it. Snowpiercer is a lot more accessible, in spite of what I said about the tone, and a lot more raw.

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Chris Evans gets to do some fun action.

Snowpiercer is probably going to go down as one of the best and weirdest movies of 2014. In a year that promises to be full of science fiction of all shapes and sizes (from the similar-seeming Zero Theorem, a Terry Gilliam film no less, to the balls-out adventure of Guardians of the Galaxy or Jupiter Ascending), Snowpiercer might get lost in the shuffle of higher anticipated or wider marketed films. I hope not. This is one of the gems you feel lucky to discover before all your friends, the kind of movie that I loved best in my high school days when it was a lot harder to get in the know about the weird, obscure stuff. Nowadays something like Snowpiercer is pretty well known by movie nerds like me, and probably big on their radars. However, that doesn’t mean a lot of people will see it.

I hope they do.

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