It’s not like this is a hard call. Summer 2014 is some weak-ass shit, as far as movies are concerned. The best movie up till now was X-Men: Days of Future Past, a well-made and very fun movie that made no fucking sense. But now it is now, not then, and now we have the first—only—truly great summer movie of 2014: Bong Joon-ho’s long awaited Snowpiercer. And boy oh boy, it’s a DOOZY.
The rest of the world got Snowpiercer last year, but thanks to Harvey Weinstein and his Scissors of Doom, most English-speaking territories had to wait for it, left to wonder if what we would eventually see would be Bong’s vision or Harvey Scissorhands’ trimmed down, dumbed-down edit. The good news is that Weinstein, after a protracted, played-out-in-the-press battle, gave up and agreed to release Bong’s original cut. The bad news is, he opted to give Snowpiercer a drastically reduced limited release and then proceeded to do no promotion for the movie. It would live or die by word of mouth, but this is a great movie, and word of mouth has been great, which is translating into solid box office. Justice!
So what makes Snowpiercer so special? Is it the unique and compelling vision from a master filmmaker not widely known to North American audiences, thus making his work feel fresh and new? Is it the bone-crunching action or the jaw-dropping visuals? Is it a bananas performance from Tilda Swinton or a game-changing turn from Chris Evans? Or is it D) All of the above? It’s totally D. Snowpiercer is a movie that works all the way through, as a piece of entertainment, as a directorial statement, and as a narrative. It’s a thinking person’s action movie and a genuinely inventive piece of science-fiction filmmaking from a director at the top of his game.
The story is odd but not complicated (not unlike Looper or Her). In the near future, an attempt at stemming the negative effects of climate change has failed, resulting in the whole world freezing over and killing off most of the population—Snowpiercer’s CW-7 is basically Vonnegut’s Ice-Nine, reimagined. What’s left of humanity is packed into a constantly moving train, with the first class living in luxury at the front of the train while the poor are crammed liked sardines into the grungy, soul-crushingly bleak tail section. The metaphor is clear and uncomplicated and the message is simple, and the script never tries to make more of it than it is. There’s no pretension about Snowpiercer—it has an idea and it’s straightforward about communicating that idea.
There’s so much to love in Snowpiercer, but its script (adapted by Bong and Kelly Masterson) is its strength, as nothing is wasted and everything, no matter how seemingly insignificant, matters in the end. A book of matches stolen at the beginning of the movie remains relevant until the final scenes. A throwaway shot of a character opening a wall panel in one scene turns out to be crucial in the next. And the chiaroscuro lighting scheme that follows the hero, Curtis (Evans), is an elegant way of foreshadowing (no pun intended) a major character reveal at the end of the movie. It’s no accident that Curtis is always the darkest thing in frame, even when he’s standing in a fully-lit wide shot.
And then there are the performances. Evans is ostensibly the star and he carries the movie well, giving a career-best performance and fucking CRUSHING a monologue in the third act, but Snowpiercer is the sum of its parts and the ensemble is what makes the film so strong. Swinton stands out as Mason, a political stooge-type who seems to have literally run mad with power. This is one of Swinton’s most bonkers performances and it brings genuine levity to the otherwise serious film, saving it from becoming outright dour. Ditto for Alison Pill (The Newsroom, Midnight in Paris) as a deranged schoolteacher—the movie needs these touches of humor in order to keep the bleak tone from sinking into depression. And South Korean actors Song Kang-ho (The Host, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) and Ko Ah-sung (The Host) are stellar as a father-daughter pair vital to Curtis’s revolutionary plans. The believability and realism of the cast has a lot to do with how easy it is for the audience to swallow this premise.
But Snowpiercer is nothing without director Bong. This is an auteur’s piece, born from one person’s specific vision and Bong has total command of his camera, his script and his cast. His confidence carries every scene, his decisions at times clear and concise, and at others compelling (Curtis choosing between Mason and Edgar), and odd (SAUNA FIGHT). The movie is a juxtaposition of the simple and the bizarre, as best illustrated by the scenes in which Evans and Swinton share screen time. That these two performances exist side-by-side is outlandish. There’s something almost obscene about it, as though it’s too much for one film to contain. And yet it does, because Bong made it so.
Snowpiercer is unlike anything else you’ll see this summer, maybe even all year. You can find a list of screenings here, and it will be available on VOD platforms beginning July 11. Make time for this one.