South Korean visionary Joon-Ho Bong has arrived stateside with the year’s best comic book adaptation, best ensemble acting piece, best sci-fi film, and perhaps the best overall film of the year. The Darkside Cinema finally has it, and not a moment too soon; Snowpiercer is the perfect film for the times. It’s part summer action, part awards season political thriller, and it’s all well executed.
The plot of this bleak vision of our future is relatively simple: after we accidentally hasten the apocalypse with a failed climate change solution, Earth’s remaining survivors all live together on a train that never stops running, circling the globe on a perpetual motion engine. A class system develops that puts the poor and downtrodden at the back of the train, constantly struggling for scraps, while an upper class thrives in the forward cabins, partying, fornicating, and persecuting their lives away in blissful ignorance of the true plight of the lower class.
Well, wipe visions of a Marxist fairy tale out of your eyes, hippies. Elysium already did ham-fisted oversimplification of leftist political ideals… badly. So badly, in fact, that the Matt Damon-anchored sci-fi vehicle was even panned by the supposedly large group of people eager to see Occupy Wall Street in space. Call them the Bionic 99%.
In Snowpiercer, when the plebeian masses rebel, they don’t find utopia at the end of a bloody rainbow, or free healthcare for all, and they certainly don’t find a convenient ending for the politically illiterate.
What they find are other people at the end of their (proverbial) bayonets. And hard choices. And the grim truth of violence: that we only say it’s not the answer to children, but that virtually nobody really believes it.
As the rebellion works its way through the train, from car to car, from increasingly gaudy world they could never have dreamed of to the next even gaudier one, they find the myths surrounding their incarceration at the back of the train crumbling, all leading to a grand finale of horrific realization—one that could start a rebellion in the audience in less cynical times.
That’s the apex of filmmaking achieved by Bong in Snowpiercer; the movie is at once thrilling, action-packed, a reflection of our times, a prediction of the future, and never a simple answer. It’s anarchy. And you can genuinely imagine, in the early days of film, that a movie like this could foment genuine political action.
There are some parts less effective than others, including some straying into the overly simplistic, and the glaring shortcomings of some of the actors. Octavia Spencer, who recently won an Oscar for The Help, is a sore thumb in the eye of an otherwise sublime cast. Chris Evans and Jamie Bell are strong as the main catalysts of revolution. Ed Harris and John Hurt are their normal excellent selves as the capitalist and communist embodiments. Kang-Ho Song, who is a phenomenal and versatile actor in many of the best films to come out of South Korea in the last 15 years, is wonderful, but unfortunately unlikely to break through with American audiences as he doesn’t speak in English. The rest of the supporting cast is strong as well, led by a dark and disturbing turn from Tilda Swinton.
In my zeal to cover the depth of the brilliant script and audacity of the vision, I may have glossed over what some of you want to know: Is the action awesome? Yes. Yes, it is. But in Snowpiercer, it’s just the cherry on top of a nearly flawless package.
Snowpiercer is playing at the Darkside Cinema, 215 SW 4th Street, for as long as you keep going back to see it.