Snowpiercer (2013, 2 hrs 6 mins)
Trains have been an interesting setting for horror and sci-fi. An enclosed space, no control over where you stop, and limited escape routes gives you a lot of room for terror and suspense. With Horror Express, we found zombies, aliens, a Rasputin look-alike, a poodle and Telly Savalas, speeding through the Russian winter on the Trans-Siberian Express. Then there was The Midnight Meat Train that provided us with a murderous slice and dice ride on the late night subway. But what if you are 17 odd years in the future, and due to a botched effort to stop global warming that makes the earth a frozen, uninhabitable iceblock, your only salvation is to be crammed onto a high-speed train that circles the globe endlessly for the rest of your life? And what if instead of living in luxury at the front of the train, with a pool, sauna and nightclub, you end up at the back of said train where it ain’t so pretty? This premise brings us Snowpiercer, a dystopian Wizard of Oz from Hell taken from a French graphic novel called Transperceneige by Jacques Lob. This is a story of a snaking and disturbing microcosm where society has actually gotten worse as limited space and supplies determine who gets what and lives where on this train; a place where the underdog claws and crawls to what they hope is a chance at equality.
Curtis (Chris Evans) is a back of the train dweller, and ready to revolt. Supported by Edgar (Jamie Bell), Tanya (Octavia Spencer), Gilliam (John Hurt), and his fellow impoverished car-mates, they tire of eating gelatinous blocks of, er, protein, deplorable living conditions and gulag treatment by a military force and Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton). Their goal is to make it to the front of the train in order to confront resident puppet master Mr. Wilford (Ed Harris), the creator of the “Sacred Engine” that moves them in an eternal circle. In order to execute their plan, they must release a prisoner, Namgoong Minsu (Kang-ho Song), the drug addicted security specialist who created the prison-like locks on the train car gates, hoping that he will help their cause.
I didn’t know what to expect with this story, but I liked this first English language film for Korean director Bong Joon-ho, who brought us one of my favourite monster movies, The Host (and for all you Oldboy, Thirst, and Stoker fans out there, one of the producers of this film is none other than legendary director Park Chan-wook). The film was weird and visually enticing, keeping the graphic novel feel as the characters moved through the train and encountered different aspects of life encapsulated in the train cars. The performances were pretty good too. Chris Evans really surprised me with his range as he tapped into the anger, outrage and shame that his character dealt with. He is proving that he’s not just a pretty face. Octavia Spencer delivered as the determined mother looking for her child, and Tilda Swinton can do no wrong in my eyes. She slayed as the toothy, ruthless Minister Mason, and I also enjoyed the pyjama-clad Ed Harris as the mysterious, Malthusian Mr. Wilford. Bong also throws in a dash of comedy as he is known to do. Just trust me on this one and watch for the drug addled raver scene. I have to commend the costume and set design too, as well as the close quarters fight sequences. The axe-wielding balaclava clad security unit fight, in the dark no less, has to be seen.
There was a kerfuffle/rumor about the release of this film and what version viewers would see due to some controversy caused by the Weinstein camp, but many articles on the web have reassured that the final cut is the one Bong had approved. I don’t think it got a wide release, but it is available on demand and currently playing at The TIFF Bell Lightbox Theatre here in Toronto. So check it out if you are in the mood for a different story, some great fights, a touch of black comedy, and a serving of long pig. Better yet, make it a triple feature, starting with Horror Express, The Midnight Meat Train and Snowpiercer. It’ll be a one-way, sci-fi/horror ticket to a fun Saturday night!