Movie Review: “Snowpiercer” Suffers From Excessive Style Over Substance

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Review by James McDonald

In a future where a failed global-warming experiment kills off all life on the planet except for a lucky few that boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe, where a class system evolves.

“Snowpiercer” is a movie I couldn’t wait to see after its trailer premiered online a few months back. The film’s director, Bong Joon-ho, made the wonderfully campy monster movie “The Host” back in 2006 so suffice to say, when I heard about “Snowpiercer”, I was genuinely excited. Chris Evans is an actor I really like and admire and with the “Captain America”, “The Avengers” and “Fantastic Four” movies, he’s always played the hero, the clean-cut, all-American nice guy so I was really looking forward to watching him play a scruffy, disheveled anti-hero, a far cry from his chiseled good-guy roles. Sadly, this was one of very few aspects that actually lived up to the hype surrounding the movie. Set in the near future, after an unsuccessful global-warming experiment has frozen and killed the entire world, a few remaining survivors live on the Snowpiercer, a train that circles the planet on an infinite loop, powered by a perpetual-motion engine.

The rich and the wealthy live at the front of the train and enjoy such accommodations as luxurious sleeping quarters, spas and swimming pools and clean, healthy, sustainable food and water. The back of the train however, is home to the poor, the destitute and the underprivileged. They reside in open living quarters and live on manufactured protein blocks that armed guards hand out to them frequently. Curtis (Chris Evans) lives amongst the poor and when the time strikes, he leads a ragtag rebellion towards the front of the cavalcade to capture the train’s reclusive and sadistic inventor Wilford (Ed Harris). Along the way, he must rescue Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho), the creator of the seemingly impenetrable steel doors that separate each carriage from the next but with armed guards and ruthless assassins waiting for the faction at every turn, it appears that the allegedly simple plan, is not so simple.

I have to hand it to director Bong Joon-ho for creating a believable and convincing world that on paper must have seemed ridiculous and far-fetched. The train itself, is a marvel to behold. From the dirty and unkempt rear right up to the posh and elegant front, furnished with an aquarium, dance hall and exquisite dining amenities, it’s the sort of thing you could imagine some of the world’s richest people investing in if it really existed. At times, the train passes entire cities which are completely frozen and it’s very eerie, as we can see everything in perfect detail, from large ships and dockyards to office buildings and cars which have been engulfed in ice. In one chilling shot, we see the still-standing corpses of a band of earlier rebels who managed to escape off the train but who sadly, didn’t get much further. Visually, “Snowpiercer” is absolutely astonishing but unfortunately, the rest of the film falls way below par.

As our band of rebels gradually make their way to the front, they encounter armed guards, murderous guerrillas and even a savage pregnant schoolteacher. As the story progresses, so does the unbelievability factor. We go from one-on-one fighting to blood-thirsty axe-wielding soldiers to drug-induced party-goers. It almost felt like a video game where you finish each level and the next one has a bigger and nastier bad guy just waiting for you. By the time Curtis reaches the engine, Wilford invites him into his quarters where he offers him steak and potatoes and then proceeds to tell him that the entire rebellion and its outcome, was predetermined by him and the rebels’ old leader, Gilliam (John Hurt). Naturally, Curtis refuses to believe this but over time, Wilford’s words begin to sink in and it was this point in the movie, that the story became totally preposterous.

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When we are first introduced to Curtis, we can see that he has an insatiable need to kill Wilford as many people close to him, over the years have been murdered, at his behest but when he finally has his moment, Wilford, in a very calm and soothing voice, tells Curtis that he is getting too old and that he wants him to take over and that he will have the entire train at his disposal. We just spent the entire movie, watching Curtis kill whomever got in his way and lose more close people around him, so he could get to the front and for what? A peaceful sermon from a madman? Wilford talks about periodically having to take children from the back of the train and kill them so that the train will have a natural balance and for the longest time, Curtis stands peacefully, at the front of the train, almost considering Curtis’ offer while his comrades are fighting for their lives right outside the door.

From the get-go, Curtis comes across as strong and resilient with a desire to kill Wilford but during this scene, it almost appears like he becomes a different person, like Wilford has the ability to get into his mind and change his plans. Anybody with an ounce of common sense would have killed him the moment they arrived but not here. Instead, we have unnecessary exposition that seems to go on and on and on and it almost felt like a parody of the James Bond movies, where the villain decides to tell Bond his plans for taking over the world because in his mind, Bond will be dead by then. In an earlier ridiculous scene, a henchman is stabbed with a machete through his ribcage and into his chest but at the end of the movie, like a Terminator, he sits up, proceeds to take the blade out of his chest and then joins back in the fight. Initially, for a moment, I thought he actually was a robot but no, he’s very much human.

“Snowpiercer” is filled with scenes like this and in the beginning, you let them slip by but gradually, you realize that the filmmakers are actually taunting you, trying to see just how many of these scenes they can get by without you noticing. It’s at that point however, once you comprehend exactly what’s going on, that you just stop caring about the plight of the rebels and anybody else for that matter. The biggest issue I had with the movie, was that this train is supposed to represent the last of mankind. The rest of the planet is dead and any and all survivors are on board the Snowpiercer, whether they are rich or poor. What I simply couldn’t comprehend, was why the last group of people representing all of humanity, had to be evil and wicked and violent.

Even the poor people who just wanted a share of the good things, had to resort to violence just to try and achieve that goal. I just found it so hard to believe that irregardless of stature, everyone on board couldn’t live together in harmony. There was obviously more than enough room and we see that throughout the movie and I just couldn’t fathom why the last of our society, couldn’t share with one another. Obviously, that’s what the filmmakers intended but at the same time, if you want me to believe your story, then make it believable. Suspending our disbelief goes only so far.

Chris Evans gives a good performance but it’s Tilda Swinton who steals the show, almost unrecognizable as the decidedly nasty and double-crossing Minister Mason, who will do anything to survive, even offer up the life of her leader, Wilford. Ed Harris was sorely miscast in the film. He is normally such a complex and expressive actor but here, he seems genuinely bored. Which is a pity because I’d much rather watch a no-name actor, hired for their genuine acting abilities, give an actual performance than some big name star that creates the illusion of a performance instead of actually giving one.

In select theaters July 2nd including the Angelika Dallas and Plano

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James McDonald
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