Science fiction films these days that concentrate on their ideas more than their spectacle have mostly been lower budget productions. The days of seeing heady sci-fi at the multiplex seem long gone, replaced with flashy and bombastic spectacle that does nothing for the parts of your brain that utilize critical thinking. That's why a film like Snowpiercer needs to be seen. It proves that you can still make a great sci-fi film full of style, but without having to sacrifice any substance. In fact, Snowpiercer makes it clear that the substance is what informs the style, and not the other way around.
Snowpiercer is the English-language debut of Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho, who made one of the last classic monster movies with The Host. It's apparent that his personal vision wasn't compromised at all (with no help from the Weinsteins, who are (mis)handling the US distribution of the film) as Snowpiercer doesn't feel rushed with its pacing, development of characters, or establishing the world the story takes place in. There is a perfect blend of foreign and American sensibilities that gives the film a wide-reaching appeal, at least in the way it is produced.
The story, however, might be tough for some to enjoy. The entire film takes place on an ever-moving train, an ark containing the remnants of a frozen Earth. The train is divided into distinct classes, with the tail of the train being the lowest class and the affluent inhabiting the cars closer to the front. The social commentary here is pretty obvious, but it's filled with the kind of righteous anger that makes for the best kind of science fiction. Curtis (Chris Evans) is a revolutionary on a warpath to the front of the train, and will stop at nothing to take over and make things better for those in the tail.
Let me get this out of the way: Chris Evans is a phenomenon to behold in this film. Anyone who thinks that he's just a pretty boy or can't act will be set straight after seeing Snowpiercer. There is an intensity to Curtis that I've never seen in any other performance by Evans. It also helps that his character is wonderfully written, with the majority of the film forcing him to make decisions that often require the most painful of sacrifices.
Sacrifice seems to be at the heart of Snowpiercer, and unlike most cookie cutter blockbusters, Snowpiercer doesn't offer easy answers. Any decision will result in something (or usually someone) being sacrificed in order for the revolution to advance. It gives Curtis a burden that brings out a dark determinism, and Evans plays it all with the conviction of a true revolutionary. It's a landmark performance in his career, and I sincerely hope we get at least one more role like it out of him.
Evans is also surrounded by a cast that is equally excellent. I especially enjoyed Tilda Swinton as a goofy but disturbing minister for the mysterious and revered conductor of the train, Wilford (Ed Harris). Another standout is Allison Pill as a children's teacher. Her scenes are some of the funniest in the movie, as they are chipper and colorful but filled with darkness and doom.
That darkness permeates the entirety of Snowpiercer. The film is a grim warning of our treatment of the planet and of our fellow man. Even the action is gruesome and lacks glorification. The violence of the film is exciting, but it's not "cool." The compact quarters of the train makes the fight scenes feel more intimate and less of a choreographed sizzle reel. I think this might turn off a lot of people, but it makes absolute sense within the themes and tone of the film.
The script by Bong Joon-Ho and Kelly Masterson is expertly crafted, with nothing and no one being extraneous. There are a number of callbacks, even from the very beginning of the film that make everything feel purposeful. Nothing that is shown or set up is forgotten, and that makes the story much more rewarding. You don't feel like anything has been left on the cutting room floor (again, no thanks to the Weinsteins, who wanted to take away Bong Joon-Ho's right to final cut to "Americanize" the film).
Between Stoker, The Last Stand and Snowpiercer, there is a substantial argument that we should start giving Korean filmmakers more shots at making movies here in America. Their unique visions have not been compromised, and they end up making films that feel special among the sea of banality we're often faced with at the movie theater. Snowpiercer has cult classic written all over it, and I hope it finds its audience eventually, because it deserves to be appreciated for a long time.