Berlinale 2014: Ambitious, Gritty Sci-Fi 'Snowpiercer' is a Masterpiece
by Alex Billington
February 7, 2014
After four years of waiting, it is time to finally experience Korean filmmaker Joon-ho Bong's first English language feature, a science fiction thriller set entirely on a train. The film is titled Snowpiercer and has been in the news recently over concerns that The Weinstein Company was editing a new version that would lose 20 minutes of scenes (apparently not any more). Snowpiercer just premiered at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival, where I finally caught up with it. And, as expected, I was totally and completely lost in the film. It's a masterpiece. I have been a long-standing outspoken fan of Joon-ho Bong and all his films (I interviewed him in 2010) but here he's at the top of his game, exceeding all expectations, delivering a sci-fi for the ages.
Snowpiercer is an ambitious, original (though based on the graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob & Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette) story set on a train in a near future where a man-made ice age has frozen the world solid and killed off all life. The only remaining survivors are those on a massive intercontinental train built by Wilford that travels around the world non-stop. The train is divided by social class, with the lavishly wealthy at the front of the train near the engine, and the grimy, oppressed poor at the tail. Adapted by Joon-ho Bong and Kelly Masterson, the script itself is brilliant, with the unraveling of the story told through the characters' actions and in major moments that drive the plot, rather than exposition.
From the moment it starts the film is vibrating with exuberance, and it never slows down. I wouldn't call it an intense experience, because it's much more of a well-choreographed performance, with a few lulls in the midst of a number of energetic fight scenes. It's violent as all hell, which plays into the darker side of the story this is trying to tell. The train itself is a metaphor for modern society, with all the class divisions and ecosystems and rules that keep a society stable. But it's also an intelligent commentary on oppression, fear, violence, brainwashing and deception, wrapped up in a story about leadership and perseverance, all set on a train rattling around a fully frozen Earth. It's now the only society left, and someone needs to change things.
That someone is Curtis, played by Chris Evans who is at his very best in this film. Right from the start he's already planning and plotting his takeover, and without much explanation we begin to watch as he pushes forward from the tail of the train. There are tinges of Soylent Green along the way. He's joined by a ragtag team of other gritty citizens: Edgar played by Jamie Bell, Gilliam played by John Hurt, Tanya played by Octavia Spencer, Andrew played by Ewen Bremner, and Namgoong played by Song Kang-ho (from The Host, Thirst). Other highlights from the cast include Tilda Swinton in a transformative role as Mason, plus Luke Pasqualino as Grey. Joon-ho knows how to get perfectly unique performances out of his actors.
What really makes this film a masterpiece is in the way the story is told, the way the narrative is structured, and the experience as an audience as we follow along. There's no hanging threads, there's no fat that can be trimmed, this is nearly perfect as is. My only criticisms are a few quips of dialogue that sounded a bit too campy in such an intelligent script (perhaps a translation issue as this was first written in Korean before being translated to English), and some odd editing mishaps in the final scenes. A few minor inconsistencies that didn't bother me much and still didn't take away from the otherwise rousing experience of watching the film, and ending up lost in its world. This is one movie I will be revisiting many, many times over the years.
In all truth and honesty, Snowpiercer isn't a movie that every audience will enjoy, but it is a film that some will love completely. The set design by Ondrej Nekvasil is spectacular, and will be analyzed and studied for years to come. The score by Marco Beltrami is fitting and provides an additional bit of energy when needed. The cinematography by Hong Kyung-pyo is extraordinary, with numerous stunning shots. The performances are all distinct and Evans, Spencer, Swinton & Kang-ho in particular are exceptional. I am so glad that after years and years of waiting, I can say Snowpiercer lives up to expectations, and is a sci-fi film that will be heralded as one of the best this decade. An ambitious story told perfectly by a master filmmaker.
Alex's Berlinale 2014 Rating: 9.8 out of 10
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