Thursday 21 August 2014

Film Review: Snowpiercer

"What killed the dinosaurs?! The Ice Age!"

Thankfully, this is one film centred on a snowy premise which is completely devoid of ice puns. Snowpiercer is a dystopic sci-fi film from Korean director Byung-hun Lee - it stars Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton and John Hurt. 

One of the most talked about independent films this year, Snowpiercer overcame its original limited release by finding a home on VOD in the United States. The movie also had a limited release here in Australia, but I finally got the chance to catch it the other day. I'm really glad I did.

Snowpiercer is set in the near future, where Earth has frozen over in a Day After Tomorrow-type scenario. In order to survive the harsh wintery landscape, humanity has banded together a huge self-sustaining train. In the intervening 17 years, a rigid caste system has evolved, with the division between the haves and the have-nots creating a microcosm of human history within the tight confines of the train. It's kind of like The Hunger Games, with those at the rear of the train being District 12 and those at the front being The Capitol.

Order is maintained through a mixture of force and exercising hegemonic control over those in the rear of the train - this is until the people, lead by Curtis (Chris Evans) and Gilliam (John Hurt), rise up and storm the front of the train. As a premise, Snowpiercer intriguing. In execution, it's masterful. This is without question one of my favourite films from 2014.

First off, Chris Evans puts in one of, if not the, best performances of his career. His character is a strong, silent type that leads the rebellion towards the front of the train. Where Evans really impresses is in the character driven quieter moments. We all know he can handle action (he has plenty of experience as Captain America), but his acting ability really shines through during the dialogue-driven scenes that focus on Curtis' tortured and haunted past.

I also really like Jamie Bell's character Edgar, as along with Octavia Spencer's protective mother Tanya, they provided some of the film's lighter moments.

The one character that really stood out for me was Tilda Swinton as hard-ass bitch Mason. I mean, I refuse to use the C-word, but Lord oh Lord - she is one. Completely and utterly maniacal, Swinton steals the show by striding around malevolently and barking orders at the "filthy peasants" in the rear of the train.

For me, one the films strongest suits is in the effective and stylistic action. Snowpiercer contains some of the most kinetic, visceral, inventive and bloodthirsty action sequences I've seen in a long while. Whilst they are all brilliantly composed, choreographed, edited and directed, two in particular stood-out - the first which thrust our heroes towards balaclava-clad axe-wielding maniacs in pitch darkness, and another that played out in almost utter silence for maximum bone-crunching, knife-stabbing impact that leaves you chilled to the core (pun intended)

The best thing about the action in Snowpiercer is that when it comes, it means something. This film isn't 120 minutes of non-stop carnage, but a string of heart-breaking character moments punctuated with acrobatic and blood-filled fight scenes. Byung-hun Lee makes use of various stylistic techniques to mix-up the action, from playing with different lighting methods (as I mentioned before) to slowing down time, a la Zack Snyder's 300. However, unlike Snyder, the use of slo-mo doesn't feel overindulgent or grow tiresome. It's used sparingly.

Also, with a premise this grim, you'll be glad to hear the film contains some lavishly dark humour to accompany the bloodlust. I was surprised by how the satire and social commentary was framed with a kinda tongue-in-cheek knowingness from the filmmakers.

The film has a lot to say about 21st Century society, from commenting on our disregard for environmental sustainability, the growing socio-economic divide, forceful dictatorships and our distrust of overbearing power structures. These themes are woven into the film in a way that doesn't make it preachy or suffocating, making it a film that can be enjoyed on many levels. For fans of films with something to say, it's all there to deconstruct, but if you just want a rollicking good sci-fi action film, Snowpiercer offers that also.

One complaint would be that the film loses steam (yes, pun intended) during the mid-section when the characters are literally passing from one carriage to the next. Whilst each carriage is unique and visually impressive in its design, it felt as though some of this could've been trimmed down (the nightclub for example) to make the film more concise. Whilst I can appreciate that Byung-hun Lee was attempting to exemplify the wide-ranging differences between the rich and poor, this is done effectively early on with no need for the repetitive nature of the seemingly unending carriages.

I give Snowpiercer: 9/10

Snowpiercer is like a gentle hammer blow to the skull - impactful and emotional, but not in a way that leaves you dazed and confused (I think that simile makes sense - work with me here). In a genre that tends to veer towards style over substance, Snowpiercer proves you can indeed have the best of both worlds. The acting is great, the direction is beautiful and the social commentary isn't forced down your throat. Easily one of the best films of 2014.


  1. Great review! I loved Snowpiercer. Definitely one of my favorites of the year.

    1. Thanks Brittani! It really was, well worth the wait! :)

  2. Great review :) The buzz around this film in the blogging community has been great, we've got our own review coming up soon!
    - Allie

  3. I thought this was a pretty good movie, though I was a bit confused about what they were going for at the very end and I felt like it could have benefited from a few more female characters (I don't know, I find it hard to believe that there was only one woman in the back of the train willing to participate in Curtis's revolution, and the only other woman involved was only taken so that they could get a man to co-operate). It does seem to be popular among the blogging community. I actually did a piece of my own last month:

    There was definitely a lot of great action and I liked the different environments created with each train car, though the part that stands out in my mind is the contrast between the cramped and overcrowded rear of the train and the spacious engine at the very front.

    1. Yeah, nice point about the contrast in space John :) I'll have to check out your post, sounds interesting. I think the ending was attempting to put a sprinkle of hope in the last few minutes, but I see where your coming from - I felt the first half was the strongest. Thanks for commenting :)

  4. Nice review. Very stylized film, and I also really dug the dark humor in this one. Good stuff. :)

    1. The action especially looked awesome - some really great camera and editing work :) Thanks for commenting Chris.



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