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If you thought that Neill Blomkamp's "Elysium" was a bleak enough dystopia, brace yourself for Bong Joon-ho's latest film. "Snowpiercer" is what George Orwell would write if he wanted to set "1984" aboard the mad Blaine the Mono from Stephen King's "The Waste Lands". Grim and fatalistic, this picture packs a chilly, compelling punch.
The apocalypse has already happened, with the planet transformed into a frozen block of ice over the next twenty years. The last dregs of mankind sought refuge aboard an ever-moving train (the titular "Snowpiercer") barreling through the icy landscape. The central conflict of "Snowpiercer" deals, of course, with a major class struggle, with most of the refugees hunkering in the ghettoized tail section of the train. The privileged few live in the front cars (I'm sure any similarities to the basic concept of the bus boycotts that started the civil rights movement are intentional), and the ragged masses congregating in the rear are sick of the oppression, and rebellion begins to foment.
The de facto "Everyman" leader is Curtis (Chris Evans), a taciturn fellow who quietly waits for the right time to strike. In the meantime, he acts as a big brother figure to his friend, Edgar (an eager Jamie Bell), while enjoying camaraderie with his fellow "tailies," including sweet-natured mother Tanya (Octavia Spencer, an unexpected but wonderful addition to a dystopian drama) and wizened elder Gilliam (John Hurt, always expected and always welcome in a dystopian drama). Almost immediately, this feels like a futuristic retelling of a drama set on a train bound for Auschwitz.
Indeed, any time the boat is rocked, Gestapo-like representatives from the front come to admonish the poor, huddled masses. They are headed by Mason (a wickedly over-the-top Tilda Swinton, who might very well be the most fiery character in the film), who seems to relish in her duties, which include forcing miscreants to shove their extremities into the frigid wastes while praising the all-powerful Wilford, the "Big Brother" figure of this story who inhabits the very front of the engine. Wilford also seems to order the cherry-picking of certain tailie children, never to return. Eventually, Tanya's son is taken, which sparks the revolution, which encompasses the first half of the film with vicious, "Oldboy"-esque brawls and rapturous moments of rebellion (there's one scene involving a kid running through darkness with a fiery torch; I swear, all it needed was a Vangelis score to complete it!). Once they have gained the upper hand, the rebels enlist the help of an drugged-up Korean engineer (Kang-ho Song) and his daughter to help them in their quest for the front.
"Snowpiercer" is beautifully imaginative with its rather simplistic story, and indeed, Bong Joon- ho gets to assemble a hodgepodge of dystopian bleakness and utopian bliss. Full credit to the set designers for creating distinct "levels" the further up the train our heroes go. And indeed, the Holocaust references really do hit home as the film goes on. One car, for instance, involves children being indoctrinated about how great their glorious leader Wilford is with a Hitler Youth-esque sort of rigmarole. Indeed, the fact that the cheeriest spot in the entire train is the potential source for future atrocity and oppression is made abundantly clear, and the pregnant, propaganda-spewing teacher (a beamingly insane Alison Pill) is ten times more terrifying than the axe-toting guards sent to subdue the revolt.
Chris Evans makes for a wonderfully stoic protagonist, and even though the role could easily fall into bland territory, I feel that his inherent "American"-ness that made him a wonderful choice for a certain Marvel hero hearkens back to the days of Charlton Heston. That said, he gets a heartfelt soliloquy in the end that stands as his finest bit of acting to date. The rest of the ensemble fleshes out their characters quite wonderfully; special mention must be made to Swinton's slimy Goebbels-esque surrogate, Spencer's lived-in dignity that aided her so much in "Fruitvale Station", and the appearance of a certain actor at the very end that puts a face to Big Brother at last.
There is naught a dull moment in "Snowpiercer"; by the halfway mark, so much has been packed in, and yet at the same time, it never feels too much. Harvey Weinstein wanted to cut twenty minutes of footage from the film and add a voice-over. "Snowpiercer", like "Blade Runner" thirty years before, isn't as inaccessible to audiences as one might think. It knows exactly what it is, exactly what it wants to be, and exactly how to show it. It may lack the spit-shine polish of "Blade Runner", but it makes up for it in sheer grit.
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