Tuesday, August 5, 2014


Plot: a failed attempt to stop global warming has left the earth an uninhabitable snowball. What remains of humanity is travelling on a world size loop in the train of the title. The only lesson of the previous wicked world that remains is the danger of the change, the rest is social stratification with no hope for upward mobility. The front of the train is all privilege and idle hedonism. The further back to the tail you go the lower the order you find. At the very back the people sleep in buckets wearing filthy rags. One man - we have him pointed out to us in the first scene as he resists the guards' order to sit down - is about to say no.

There's the plot and it will career locomotively from the abject squalour to the gleaming perfection of the engine. Dystopia, revolt and what it can tell us is a plot that has been intact for time immemorial through its use during the acceleration of technology and populist politcs of the last few centuries. The forumla still works so that's what we get here. The difference between one and the next lie in the personal touch: political or social details added; style. Snowpiercer has a little of the former but a quarry worth of the latter.

If Chris Evans' hero of the people seems a little bland then that should be down to formula as well. The rebels of dystopias are people who are awakened to tyranny from a comatose complacency (like Logan or Neo). Their extra qualities must rise from their ordinariness for credibility and empathy. Until his character, Curtis, tells his long but compelling story of how he was awoken I kept wanting his offsider, the dependable Jamie Bell, to take the action helm. But it works as is.

But this film delivers its still fresh message about the price of privilege and the need to question the inaction it demands and delivers it in great style. John Hurt's character is not called Gilliam for nothing. There is such delight in the kind of stainless steel and Bakelite world of the Snowpiercer from the Dickensianly oilstained poor but a lot of Terry G in the floppy protein bars that look like they're made from aspic and crude oil. The spotless rich in the forward sections and the absurdism of the class (led by a perfectly high pitched Alison Pill) and the throwaway contempt of the rich children are also done in worthy tribute. But the carriage filled with the blade wielding fishmarket ninjas and the extraordinary fight coreography ensuant is all Bong Joon-ho. If we needed it we need look no further to be reminded of his back catalogue than the presence of Bong alumnus Song Kang-Ho whose difficulty as a character (he is the only one with lines who never speaks English, keeping to subtitled Korean, and it feels like perversity rather than lack) makes him impossible to dislike.

Bong's back catalogue stretches elastically form the eerie political police procedural Memories of Murder, through the exhilarating monster movie The Host and the gut-punching morality tale Mother. Because of the comfort he has shown with all of that diversity we have no trouble watching this non stop actioner with its happy frequent humour and even more frequent red spurting violence. He is simply a contemporary master who takes a delight in detail, machinery both human and metal and the opportunity to inject satire in every gap that presents itself lest the action or the grimness get laughably intense.

If you like your dystopias fast furious and frequently funny and bathed in edible style and compelling action you should go and see this at a cinema. It'll be great at home but for action like this, fall into the swell of a public screening. You and the film deserve it.

PS - something that occured to me at the screening that I forgot about writing the review:

Snowpiercer reminded me of those great sci fi or mystique movies that came out in the 80s where the sci was as important as the fi and packed a style-wallop in there as well. All those straight to the Valhalla films that the great glug deluge of Star Wars and its lo-nutrient copyists pushed underground like The Quiet Earth, The Navigator, The Keep, The Element of Crime, Lifeforce or The Hidden. There's such commitment to the world it creates in every frame, such belief in where it's going. These were movies you'd go back to on video. You'd miss the energy of the cinema audience around you but something always remained. That's what this movie is like.

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