Review: Snowpiercer / Cert: 18 / Director: Joon-ho Bong / Screenplay: Joon-ho Bong, Kelly Masterson / Starring: Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, Kang-ho Song / UK Release Date: TBC
Despite a recognisable cast and easily explained high concept, Snowpiercer is taking a tortuous route to international screens. Based upon the French comic Le Transperceneige and currently on release in Asia, director Joon-ho Bong and Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein only recently agreed to release the film in the US without any alterations after Weinstein had announced plans to remove 20 minutes from the running time and add voice-over narrations to the start and end (there's still no UK release confirmed yet).
While not quite the artistic masterpiece that fans of the post-apocalyptic have been hailing it at sight unseen, Snowpiercer is still a thrilling, intriguing, blackly humorous and sometimes horrifying ride through the best and worst that humanity has to offer.
17 years after a man-made ice age is inflicted upon the world, the only survivors are found on a perpetually moving train traversing a circular railroad that stretches from Europe to the US, across the Bering Strait and back again. Curtis (Evans), Edgar (Bell), Gilliam (Hurt) and a host of others live in cramped squalor in the rearmost carriage of the train, subsisting on daily "protein bars" and suffering at the hands of those from the head of the train, including the cruel kidnapping of their children and vicious punishments for even the smallest act of rebellion.
The face of this oppression is mostly portrayed by an almost unrecognisable Tilda Swinton as the Yorkshire-accented bureaucrat who matter-of-factly doles out terror with no thought whatsoever of those she subjugates. Undeniably the star of the film, Swinton's performance is amazing – talking in aphorisms, revelling in violence yet to be unleashed, her every mannerism and action inspiring laughter or repulsion, all accentuated by that amazing accent.
With the help of a former security expert (and Joon-ho Bong's cohort from The Host, Kang-ho Song) Curtis and his comrades seize a chance to "move forward" in an attempt to take control of the sacred engine, the only way to truly control the lives of those on the train.
The concept may seem absurd, but Joon-ho Bong slowly but continually doles out details to support the notion that so many people could survive 17 years on a train. As Curtis moves towards the front, more and more of the life and history of the train is revealed, in sometimes intriguing, sometimes bleakly comic and other times horrendous detail. (You really don't want to know where those "protein bars" come from.) On the other hand, the look of awe on the main characters' faces when confronted with the outside world through a window after 17 years in the windowless rear carriage is a joy to behold.
As they move closer to the front resistance becomes fiercer, their numbers dwindle, themes of survival, balance and ecology become more prevalent in the film and the grotesques they confront become all the more Gilliam-esque. Many scenes of the first class passengers evoke a similar feeling to parts of Brazil – is it any coincidence that John Hurt's character is called Gilliam?
While not purely an action film, the action that does take place rarely ceases to surprise. Every time a new carriage is entered, the revolutionaries and the audience have no idea what to expect, except that the violence will always be vicious. The restrictions of the train are also cleverly used as our heroes have no other option but to slowly work their way though row after row of armed, masked guards in order to progress.
Any time the film looks like it might run out of steam, a new detail of the world or character backstory is revealed in a masterful act of world-building and the film changes gear completely for a third act ending that avoids becoming just another fight and adds a somewhat hopeful tone to what has gone before.
Careening from absolute horror to the blackest humour with glee, it's pretty clear which cuts Weinstein wanted, most of them probably related to elements of Evans' characters' backstory that mainstream audiences may baulk at, but these are strengths for this R-rated film. It never shies away from the reality of its situation, from the salty language to the brutal violence to its final wordless conclusion.
Expected Rating: 6 out of 10