Film review: Snowpiercer, dir. by Bong Joon-Ho and starring Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton and Song Kang-Ho

Forget what you know about heroes, because Snowpiercer is going to remake your image of what a hero looks like.

It is almost 20 years after an experiment designed to stop global warming instead resulted in the earth being frozen over. Now, all survivors live on a train – Snowpiercer – which hurtles its way round the earth, between the snowdrifts. But society has not banded together to survive, instead the haves live luxury lives at the front of the train, while the have-nots live in squalor at the back of the train, surviving on a diet of brown, jelly-like bars and a taste for equality and revenge. Led by Curtis (Chris Evans) the have-nots decide to stage a coup, get to the front of the train, and destroy the class system forever.
I can’t begin to tell you just how good a film Snowpiercer is, and how much it pains me that it hasn’t received a cinema release in the UK. This is, undoubtedly, one of the best films released this year. Beautifully shot and directed by Bong Joon-ho, Snowpiercer is painful, violent and bleak, and brilliant with it.

Bong Joon-ho has assembled a superb ensemble cast, starting with Evans, who takes his second turn in 2014 at playing a hero. But where Captain America is squeaky clean and honourable (albeit while being loaded down with sadness), Curtis is the complete opposite. Physically as well as in everything else – Curtis spends the film covered in who knows how many layers of grime. Curtis is a dark hero, he’s not afraid to cajole, blackmail and kill to achieve what he believes is the greater good, and he protects the weak and stands up for what is right. It’s easy to see why he is the chosen leader, and why he is hero worshipped by Edgar (Jamie Bell) and followed by so many. 

But Curtis is a hero whose motives are a little bit selfish. Evans is great throughout the film, but he truly shines towards the end, as he performs a monologue which makes you both want to look away from Curtis in disgust, yet also create a protective bubble around him so no more harm can befall him. It’s a mighty piece of acting.

Also acting her socks off is Tilda Swinton, as bad guy Mason. She’s virtually unrecognisable, in her wig, with bad teeth, and wearing clothing which hides all traces of femininity. Swinton is representative of the haves, but looking so unlike one makes her more threatening – she doesn’t seem to go in for much of the trappings of wealth. For her, it’s the power that is attractive, and that makes her terrifying.

Wielding just as much power, at least for the rebels, is drug addict Song Kang-Ho as Namgoong, the only person who knows how to open the gates to each carriage of the train. In return for Kronol, an addictive drug made from toxic waste, and for his daughter Yana (Ah-sung Ko) to be allowed to accompany him to the front of the train, Namgoong will help. He’s far from reliable, but he’s cunning (and kind of crazy) and the father-daughter dynamic he and Yana bring to the film is welcome.

There is a great supporting cast, from Bell as the guileless Edgar through to Octavia Spencer as the tough Tanya and John Hurt as Gilliam, one of two men who created Snowpiercer, but who is languishing with the have-nots after being betrayed by his partner Wilford (Ed Harris). In a couple of hours, it’s amazing how many characters you come to care about, love, and then mourn. (As a side note, Snowpiercer is excellent on diversity – it’s a film about society that actually reflects society.)

Because Snowpiercer, spoiler alert, is not a happy film. This isn’t a Hollywood hero story, it’s way more violent. There is blood, and lots of it, and the fights scenes are visceral. You see punches, and more, landing on human flesh, something rarely seen in a Hollywood because of the fear of getting a box office damaging R rating. And the violence in Snowpiercer is all the more effective for being constrained to such a small space – the train carriages don’t offer much room for big set pieces, but the fight choreography is stunning.

It’s not just about violence though, Snowpiercer has interesting things to say about class too. While it’s not subtle, the metaphor of the train works well, and the vast differences in the classes of people are visually represented in each of the carriages. As Curtis and the rebels move forward, they go from a life of black and grey and dirt to shocking pops of colour and noise and light. It’s visually arresting.

Snowpiercer is an absolutely beautiful film with genius direction and wonderful acting, which combines high-octane action with quieter, darker moments, and it is everything that mainstream movie studios should be aspiring to produce. We may never see this film on the big screen (although it would be amazing and fully deserves it), but Snowpiercer retains all of its power, wherever you view it.

Snowpiercer is out on DVD now.

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