It is possible that many of you may not have heard of Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer. Why would you have done? Aside from a limited release in the States before moving on to VOD, the film has only screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival on these shores, and still has no set UK release date. Whether it will ever hit our cinema screens remains to be seen, but hopefully this film will receive the exhibition it deserves, as Snowpiercer stands as one of the most stylish and wholly original pieces of Science Fiction in recent memory. So, of course it doesn’t receive the distribution it deserves.
The Earth has been plunged into a new vicious Ice Age following a failed experiment to combat climate change. No living soul can survive on the surface of the planet without freezing to death in a matter of seconds. Those that survived the deep freeze have found shelter within a large train that travels round the globe via a perpetual-motion engine. Aboard this train though, social hierarchy has once again reared its head among the contained survivors. The lower-class reside in squalor at the rear of the train, while the upper-class up at the front indulge, with little care for the remaining few thousand human beings that occupy the back of the train. Yet, in the wake of cryptic messages being sent down to the end carriage, a revolution begins to unfold, reluctantly led by Curtis (Chris Evans). Leading a band of the repressed, Curtis aims to end the class struggle aboard once and for all. But, is everything as it seems aboard the Snowpiercer?
Adapted from a French graphic novel of the same name, Snowpiercer is a unique Sci-Fi; it feels huge in scale, yet is very contained, has style to spare despite only having a $30 million budget, and features big name actors who feel no need to showboat. It is a film in which its effects, both practical and digital, offer personality rather than offer a carbon copy of dull, faceless American Sci-Fi movies. Joon-ho Bong, who is perhaps best known for The Host, manages to put every dollar on the screen in a wonderfully efficient and visually varied way, allowing each section of the train to have its own distinctive and lasting visual identity.
The arse-end of the train is exactly that. A suitable level of grime, dirt, and oil oozes and stains Bong’s camera. Yet, as we move further up the train and the people’s souls become more ugly by way of their ignorance and self-absorption, the colour palette becomes brighter, more vivid, more extravagant, and in a way, more alien. We enter various worlds whilst aboard this self-propelled vessel of human survival that we almost forget that this film is merely contained within oh so many carriages. Bong brings these various pockets of dystopian society to such glorious life that one can not help but gaze in awe at the level of creativity on screen.
It is such a glorious feeling to stumble across a work of originality such as this in modern cinema, particularly when it comes to Sci-Fi. Whilst it is easy to think that Sci-Fi is perhaps the easiest genre to create original stories within, they still remain fair and in-between. I am a great appreciator of (decent) Hollywood cinema, but I will be the first to admit that Hollywood Sci-Fi is incredibly interchangeable, and rarely does it operate outside of franchise installments. Perhaps what puts Snowpiercer head and shoulders above Hollywood genre pictures is in its mixed pedigree of International cinema and literature (if you’re of the camp that classes Graphic Novels as literature).
Featuring a cast made up of American, English, and Korean actors, with a predominantly Korean crew, the film obtains a personality that allows it to transcend the confines of any particular form of national cinema. Granted, it can be read as Boon’s attempt to appeal to a more Westernised audience (it does star Captain America), but this is not particularly a star vehicle, or a film that compromises its uniqueness in order to be more appealing to a certain market. This is a dark future-scape in which human beings have been contained and pushed to levels they never expected to explore in civilized society. The society on display here, from the proletariat and up, is both satirical, a tad farcical, yet peppered with words of warning. It works largely in metaphor, with some of the logic not particularly holding up well as you dwell on the film. It will take several viewings for me to truly gauge exactly how successful I feel its messages are, but Snowpiercer has great potential for heated discussion and debate concerning what we can gleam from this certain dystopian, which clearly owes much to Orwellian sty-lings.
For those who look more for thrills rather than intellectual pondering on class struggles, Snowpiercer also fully delivers. Bong has lost none of his visceral ferocity, allowing for the action sequences within the train to rattle and impress. Surged by the power of Marco Beltrami’s thundering score, the action pits you in the heat of the revolution. The film can also stand as the only comic-book adaptation this year that boasts Captain America slipping on a fish. The action dials down in favour of social satire as more and more of the train is revealed to us, before building to a climax that is not quite as bombastic or as revelatory as you’d expect. Instead, it is in quieter moments that the more devastating features and details of these characters are revealed to us.
When original pieces of Sci-Fi struggle to obtain distribution, it is largely due to a C-List cast leading the charge. This is not the case with Snowpiercer. With a brilliantly subdued Chris Evans, and the star power that he should attribute, it seems strange that this struggled for a wider release… particularly in Britain. Much of the supporting cast is made up of recognisable and rather adored British talent. Tilda Swinton comes via the Yorkshire hills to add a touch of sickly malice. Jamie Bell adds a touch of eager naivety, while John Hurt brings his trademark old school class as Gilliam, Curtis’ mentor.
Snowpiercer is experiencing a nice degree of success on VOD across the pond, be it from the star pull of Evans or the strong word of mouth that the film has quickly attributed. As for its fate in regards to UK distribution, that is a matter still as of yet undecided. Should this one day hit UK cinemas, hopefully within the next year, I shall be one of the first in line. Snowpiercer has come from a unique place in Sci-Fi cinema. It plays with familiar concepts in a unique and refreshing way, and also manages to provoke thought among-st its thrills through effective satire, metaphor and design; a feat many films fail to achieve.