Bong Joon-ho // 2014 // 126 mins
The year is 2031. The failure of an experiment that was supposed to counteract global warming has triggered an ice age and killed all life on earth with the exception of a select few who boarded a large, self-sustaining train known as the Snowpiercer. The trains occupants are divided by an oppressive class system that sees those at the front of the train enjoy a life of luxury while those at the tail-end suffer in squalor.
Rather than laboriously set up the premise through an overlong exposition, Snowpiercer jump starts in the middle of the action as a small group from the tail of the train are in the final stages of revolting against their oppressors after 17 years. They plan to work their way through each carriage until they reach the sacred engine and the train's creator, the mysterious Wilford. The group is lead by Curtis (Chris Evans), under the guidance of his elderly mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) and with the help of his friend Edgar (Jamie Bell) Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song), an engineer who knows how to open the gates to each carriage, Nam's daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko) and Tanya (Octavia Spencer), a determined mother hoping to track down the young son that was taken from her. As dystopian futures go, Snowpiercer is a solid, if unusual, concept and one that is realised with incredible dedication. The production design is fantastic and impresses over and over with each subsequent carriage that the characters venture through, moving from the slum-like tail-end through to the extravagant, vibrant and often surreal carriages of the upper classes.
The considerable runtime moves at a surprisingly brisk pace, particularly during the action-heavy first half. The initial revolt is perfectly choreographed and the fast-paced editing continues through a number of exhilarating fights with the largest, set in darkness as the train rides through a tunnel, being the films most successful set-piece. The dark tone that works so effectively for most of the film is occasionally compromised by the extravagant, sometimes ridiculous, glimpses of the upper class. Tilda Swinton as Minister Mason, a vile, domineering disciple of Wilford, is unrecognisable and brilliant, yet contributes to this satirical representation of the upperclass which veers closer to comedy rather than upholding the dark dystopia of this world.
Snowpiercer feels like probably one of the most complete representations of a post-apocalyptic dystopia which is likely due to it's roots as a graphic novel and its claustrophobic environment. Though it suffers from occasional bouts of sub-par special effects when we glimpse the frozen world outside of the train, the excellent direction from Bong Joon-ho, in his English language debut, and brave narrative decisions make this a smart, engaging film that never compromises its intentions to fit into the blockbuster mould.