Review: Snowpiercer (2013)

Director: Bong Joon Ho
Screenwriter: Bong Joon Ho, Kelly Masterson
Starring: Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Song Kang Ho
Genres: Drama, Action/Adventure, Sci-Fi/Fantasy
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, drug content, and violence
Release Dates: 6/27/14 (Theatres); 3/7/17 (Streaming)
Runtime: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 94%
Where to Watch: Netflix


I had originally seen Snowpiercer, Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho’s first English-language film, a few years ago. But, perhaps I wasn’t paying that much attention before, as I forgot much of what had transpired the second time I watched it (with nearly 100% attention). I’d forgotten how violent and bizarre it was; but, also, I think I appreciated the impressive scope of the filmmaking more this time, especially after having seen Ho’s Oscar-winning masterpiece Parasite. 

Snowpiercer is based on a comic book, and now has been turned into a TV series (which I haven’t seen). It’s an extremely bold dystopian premise that somehow still isn’t outside the realm of possibility. In the not-too-distant future, efforts to combat climate change have back-fired and created an unlivable, Ice Age-like environment. The rest of humanity now lives on a high-tech train, built and operated by evil genius Wilford (Ed Harris, clearly having fun in the role). The train is organized like a caste system, with those who are poor left to essentially fend for themselves and treated like slaves, living at the back. It’s fascinating to see how the tone of the film changes as the action moves throughout the train, showing different levels of wealth and types of living. 

zeThe plot centers on Curtis, played by Captain America himself, Chris Evans, in-between the first and second Captain America films. As he was in Marvel shape, the filmmakers and costumers cleverly concealed his physique in order for him to appeal more hardened and stricken like his fellow back-of-the-train poor folks, including characters played by Jamie Bell and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer. The film also features a gender-ambiguous character played by shape-shifting Oscar winner Tilda Swinton, referred to as both a man and woman, as well the late, great John Hurt. 

Snowpiercer is incredibly violent, a fact that I’d forgotten when suggesting this film as one to watch with my parents. And, yet, the violence doesn’t need to be too over-the-top (at least for me) or unnecessary, as some dystopian films and franchises may not accurate enough in depicting what the violent society would look like (The Hunger Games is an exception here, despite PG-13 ratings). Also, despite the film’s sci-fi plot, it doesn’t rely too heavily on special effects and manages to be grounded enough in reality (or, as much as possible) to garner catharis from the audience. It certainly helps that the characters — even the villains — are very interesting and distinctive. And, while we still don’t know as much as we’d like about Curtis by the end of the film, we still empathize with him and his quest for revenge. 

The end does seem a bit rushed and more abrupt than I’d hoped, and ends with almost as many questions as answers. Despite the somewhat tragic ending, there is still a fair amount of hope. Sure, some scenes are totally absurd, but that seems on-brand for the now Oscar-winning director of Parasite. He also produces excellent performances from a fully-committed cast, and not just Swinton and Spencer. Here, Evans gives his most desperate, emotionally draining performance yet, in what is clearly his best non-Avengers role. In one particularly draining monologue towards the end, you can see the pain in his eyes and in his heart. 

In addition, like Parasite — although not nearly as flawlessly — this film successfully navigates the myriad tonal shifts, most notably in the scene with children and a teacher that is so ridiculous that is somehow still works. And, as now an avid fan of Bong Joon Ho, I’m excited to check out the rest of his oeuvre.