Movie Review

‘Snowpiercer’ is a thrilling, emotional adventure

by Jonathan Hickman, Special to the Times-Herald

It is all about balance in the ecosystem that is the Snowpiercer, a train that provides the last refuge for humanity after a failed climate change experiment. Maintaining balance is sometimes an ugly and bloody thing.

A unique release strategy for this potential blockbuster may have confused viewers. “Snowpiercer” has been available on various streaming platforms for several weeks now, and it is slowly expanding into theaters. I watched it via iTunes, but it should be available online using other services like Amazon. This multi-platform release approach has been employed with other films, usually dramas and low-budgeted pictures. “Alan Partridge,” the popular British comedy, was another film that successfully released on VOD and other platforms along with a limited theatrical run. As the summer ends and the awards season gets closer, look for the window between the theater and home viewing to shrink aggressively.

“Snowpiercer” is an amazing film. While I watched it in the comfort of my home, I think catching it on the big screen could be a special experience. The futuristic setting really hides impressive dramatic story elements. The action takes place almost exclusively on a train. It isn’t just any train, but one created by a mysterious captain of industry named Wilford (played by Ed Harris) to address climate change. Apparently, a failed experiment aimed at reversing climate problems actually speeds it up and turns the world into a frozen wasteland.

The train is divided into cars, of course, with each car representing a different class of passenger. And the farther back you get, the lower the class. In the 18 years since people escaped the extreme cold by taking to the train, Curtis (Chris Evans) has slowly risen to second-in-command of the last. His superior, Gilliam (John Hurt), is a one-legged, one-armed old intellectual who has managed to keep order and a semblance of civility in the cramped environment. Watching the film, you can almost smell how bad the conditions are. The faces of the people are literally caked with years of grime, and clothing is in tatters. Food is scarce, consisting of gelatin blocks that hardly look appetizing.

The life of the “have-nots” in the back of the train differs substantially from that of the “haves” farther up in the front. When Curtis and a small band decide to revolt, the delicate balance is in danger of being disrupted. And the future of mankind is threatened.

Starring Captain America’s Chris Evans and international star Kang-ho Song, the market for “Snowpiercer” should be extremely wide. And even though the origins of the story and production hail from South Korea and from the mind of South Korean director Joon-ho Bong, the film will play well for American viewers. It is nonetheless an intellectual science-fiction actioner along the line of the latest “Planet of the Apes” installment, but given the violence and adult situations, the film is understandably more adult in its focus. For me, “Snowpiercer” is more provocative than almost any dystopian adventure we’ve seen released in many years. The sci-fi genre has been clogged lately with films that run the gamut between young adult soap operas to a film like “Snowpiercer” that is reminiscent of a future akin to that of the future shock of “Soylent Green” or to a lesser extent the latest “Purge” offering.

Stepping up the entire production is the amazing casting of award-winning actors. In addition to Evans, Harris, and Hurt, we get Tilda Swinton (whose character sports overbearing glasses and buck teeth), Jamie Bell, and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer. Everyone is up to the challenge, with Spencer showing great range here as a mother in search of her child. And because the story is so well-tuned and uncompromising, the action takes a back seat to the emotional fireworks that ultimately bring the house down. There is a mystery being unraveled in each train car, and moving from car to car presents another fantastic opportunity for thrilling action sequences and crushing drama.

At the dramatic center of “Snowpiercer” is this concept of balance. It is a metaphor for climate change and personal balance. We’re taken on a journey to the front of the Snowpiercer, learning about the ecosystem that travels roughly over icy tracks. It’s a ride worth taking.

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