This review is also up at Channel 24
What it's about
After a disastrous climate change experiment wipes out nearly all life on earth, the last few remaining humans spend their lives in Snowpiercer, a highly advanced, self-powered train, on its endless journeys around the world. Within Snowpiercer, however, tensions between the classes are about to reach boiling point and it's up to Curtis (Chris Evans) and his ragtag group of lower-class revolutionaries to bring class equality to the train – or die trying.
What we thought
An instant cult classic on release, Snowpiercer's curious mix of allegorical science fiction and Asian-cinema-inflected, heightened action sequences has also fallen victim to a fair amount of backlash. Interestingly, it's one of those rare genre films that has had a noticeably warmer reception by critics than by general audiences, as it scored a very respectable 8.4 on Metacritic and a rather less enthusiastic audience rating of 7.0 on the Internet Movie Database.
It's a fairly strange phenomenon but it's hardly entirely unexpected. Snowpiercer is an audacious science fiction film that deals head on with fairly big ideas but, while it works well on that “deeper” level – you know, the level that critics love to operate on – as a basic piece of storytelling, it is unquestionably flawed.
Aside for the number of holes that can be poked into the basic premise, the characterization is shallow, the pacing slightly awkward and it often hammers home its (not very “sub”) subtext with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. And that's before it gets to its explosive ending that never works quite as well as it's supposed to. Tonally, it's also all over the place as it moves from heavy drama to action adventure to nutso, satirical parody with almost no fluidity whatsoever.
Here's the thing, though: it is its flaws, every bit as much as its numerous virtues, that make Snowpiercer the captivating, thought provoking and visceral experience that it is. Cult films that are designed to be cult films almost never work but this is one case where the almost self-conscious messiness of the storytelling and the audience-baiting ugliness of what the film is trying to say, combine to make a film that can't help but create a reaction where people either passionately love it or passionately hate it.
Weirdly though, quite unlike something like the fairly recent, equally “love it or hate it” cult flick, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (LOVE it), I actually don't fall into either camp in this case. I love how confrontational Snowpiercer is, even if I don't particularly like what it ends up saying, and however much I admire writer/ director Joon-ho Bong's willingness to throw some egg shells into this particular omelette to give it some much needed crunch, I do think he overdoes it somewhat. I like Snowpiercer, basically, but I could never quite bring myself to love it.
If there is one place, though, where I have absolutely no reservations whatsoever, it's unquestionably the film's phenomenal cast, every last one of whom elevate even the worst parts of the film by bringing their absolute a-game to the project, no matter how large or small their part. Chris Evans once again proves to be one of the best leading men around, even if he is a hell of a lot scruffier here than he is usually, and he gets some nice “straight” support from the likes of Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer and the king of dystopian scifi himself, John Hurt. Better still – or at least more memorable – though are Oldboy's Kang-ho Song and Ah-Sung Ko as the film's real and quite unlikely heroes, but even they almost have the film stolen from underneath them by hilariously off-the-reservation performances by Tilda Swinton and... well, actually, that would be telling.
Honestly though, while I highly recommend Snowpiercer to fans of out-there cinema (less so to anyone else though), I'm just kind of ecstatic that a film this far off the beaten track, this self-consciously out of the mainstream is actually being released to South African cinemas. Maybe there is hope, after all.