Piercing train of thought

BY MATTHEW BYRD | JULY 24, 2014 5:00 AM

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5 out of 5 Stars

Snowpiercer is the dark prince of the summer movie season. It’s rogue, subverting every expectation associated with the action and sci-fi genres, from how the basic plot mechanisms are trotted out to the way in which the politics slowly bubble to the surface, even down to the movement of the camera through the action. Yet, when the contours of the film are finally revealed, Snowpiercer reigns above its sloppy contemporaries.

We start with the end and move forward. Humanity’s attempts to cool the atmosphere and reverse global warming have failed. Miserably. A new Ice Age has arisen, killing off most of the planet except a few lucky souls who’ve found refuge on a train that’s been moving without abate for 17 years.

Headed by an enigmatic tycoon with the ingeniously stupid name Wilford (Ed Harris), the train operates on a rigid class system, with impoverished passengers inhabiting the tail section and the wealthy occupying positions of privilege at the head.

The tail, however, is tired. Led by the determined bearded Curtis (Chris Evans, doing some of his best work here), and a ragtag team of rebels (including Jaime Bell, Octavia Spencer, and the indispensable John Hurt) team up with imprisoned front train security officer Namgoog (Song Kang-Ho) and his seemingly clairvoyant daughter Yona (the brilliant Go Ah-sung), to make their way to the head, seize the engine, and engage in some good old-fashioned, gut-the-rich revolt.

If it sounds like the plot and politics are the dime-store, political illiterate “class-barriers suck, and we should all be equal” pabulum of other socially conscious, big-budget blockbusters such as Elysium and The Hunger Games, you’ll be delightfully surprised. Rather than making blasé, “nobody could disagree with” statements on class and global warming, Snowpiercer uses these issues to explore larger questions of how societies are arranged and what it takes to undo the structures of an unjust system. The type of questions whose answers shouldn’t  result with nodding heads or eye rolls, the ones that sometimes take a book to answer.

To talk too much about the shape of both the politics and plot take would be to ruin the fun of feeling around in the dark until you find them, a discovery that’ll rattle your brain for days, if not weeks.

If the politics of Snowpiercer are contemplative and radical, the way the film barrels toward the conclusion it downright revolutionary. 

When you spend enough time in movie land, it can feel as if even the good movies are going through the motions. You know how it’s going to end and how it’s going to get there. Hints are picked up through familiar character back stories and tried-and-true set pieces. And there are, of course, the golden movie rules that set boundaries for where mainstream movies can venture.

Major characters won’t be killed off until the last act, if a romance can develop between two central characters, it usually will, and happy endings are happy in the most ideal ways possible for the main characters.

For Snowpiercer, however, the golden movie rules are inadequate. So it just blows them up.

For the first 20 minutes or so, the film is recognizable as standard, postapocalyptic fare, but after that, director Bong Joon Ho burns the roadmap for how these films are “supposed to” work and runs it off the rails. Every plot and character beat is almost impossible to read in advance. I predicted how the film was going to end about six or seven times, each one more inaccurate than the rest.

Snowpiercer, amazingly, exists on so many planes whose contours it shatters. It’s a train movie unlike any other train movie. It’s an sci-fi action film unlike any sci-fi action film. It’s a political movie unlike any other political movie. When the final shot cuts to black, you realize this is a film you won’t be able to extract from your consciousness for a long time, if ever.

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