If you haven’t seen (or, ugh, even heard of) this dystopian masterpiece, you can hardly be blamed. In addition to being one of the best films of the year, Snowpiercer also carries with it the dubious honor of being one of the biggest distributor clusterfucks of 2014. Originally released in France and Asia in 2013, the Western (and, in particular, American) distribution was mired in bureaucratic holdups, thanks in no small part to Harvey Weinstein, who woefully underestimated the power of the film and its director (and, even, audiences); after being cut by twenty minutes by TWC, the movie was in less than 500 U.S. theaters and went pretty much straight to VOD.
Snowpiercer is, I guess, not for everyone.
Directed and co-written by South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (Mother, The Host), Snowpiercer is based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, wherein the near-time future, in an ill-fated attempt to stop global warming, humanity has managed to freeze the world and bring on its own extinction. Eighteen years on, the only survivors of the human race now live in a caste-divided train (rich at the front, poors at the back) that circles the globe on the same track, making a full circle once every year. We’re with the plebes throughout the film (many of whom are mysteriously missing limbs), led by the reluctant Curtis (Chris “Captain America” Evans) and aging quadriplegic revolutionary Gilliam (John Hurt). The back of the train is pretty much hell, dark and disgusting, and hints are slowly revealed to how this all came to be. When the back of the train rises up in revolution, the passengers begin to make their way up to the front (where the mysterious and all-knowing conductor “Wilford” resides), and movie transforms into a stylized action thriller that does its source material justice.
As the rebels make their way, car by car, their surroundings change like video game levels—the production design is jaw-dropping—and we (and they) begin to see what the world is now, for the first time. Their guides to this new world are drug-addict ex-cons Namgoong Minsu (the excellent Song Kang-ho) and his daughter Yona (Ko Ah-sung), while the forces in their way to Wilford attempt to stop them at every car with unspeakable violence. The stars and support are outstanding, but it’s Tilda Swinton who nearly steals the film as Wilford crony Mason. Her opening monologue goes down with some of the best villain speeches in history (“This is not a shoe,” she barks, holding the object menacingly while a passenger is tortured next to her. “This is disorder. This is size 10 chaos”).
With an overt tone of dark and brilliant satire, Snowpiercer is a visceral and emotional ride that, once it starts, never slows until it arrives at a revelatory ending that exposes the very best and very worst in us all.—Breanna Murphy