I was going to wait until the US release dates, but screw it. Distributors have been dragging their heels and these features have already hit home media in several other countries, so you're getting reviews of some of my most highly anticipated films from last year now.
I expect that Bong Joon-ho's science-fiction action film "Snowpiercer," is going to be pretty divisive. For one thing, it's one of those social allegory films like "In Time" or "Equilibrium" that has a really half-baked premise that is completely implausible when you think about it. And then there's the dark tone, the two-dimensional characters, and the fairly heavy-handed messages about class and persecution. There are plenty of action sequences to keep the momentum going, but they're not the point of the movie, and the director refuses to follow the usual formulas for the action spectaculars his audience may be expecting.
"Snowpiercer" takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where a new ice age has wiped out most of life on earth. What remains of humanity live on a train, the Snowpiercer, which perpetually circles the globe. The elites live at the front of the train and the poorest passengers are kept in the tail compartment, downtrodden and oppressed by the agents of the train's mysterious creator, Wilford (Ed Harris). After some of the tail compartment children are taken away by the cruel Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), a rebellion is organized by a man named Curtis (Chris Evans). He and a group of the passengers intend to fight their way to the front of the train, seize the engine, and overturn the system. The first step is breaking an engineer, Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho), out of prison.
The first thing you'll notice about the film is that in spite of the Korean director and crew, nearly the entire cast is made up of recognizable Western actors, In addition to Evans, Swinton, and Harris, there's also John Hurt as Curtis's mentor figure Gilliam, Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer as other members of the rebellion, and Alison Pill as a teacher they encounter further up in the train. Most of the dialogue is in English, though Namgoong Minsu and his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung) converse almost entirely in Korean. "Snowpiercer" was clearly intended for Western audiences, and borrows lots of tropes from Hollywood action films. You have the small band of scrappy freedom-fighters rising up against a corrupt system, the loathsome totalitarian thugs, the madman visionary, and snazzy gun battles galore.
That's why the departures from the Hollywood template have more impact here. Ideas and story are given particular emphasis, while the action is a secondary concern. Violence has consequences, usually very bad, and the world of "Snowpiercer" is much harsher and more cynical than the bulk of similar American dystopia films. Bong Joon-ho doesn't flesh out its characters as well as he should, with a few exceptions, but he does a great job with the worldbuilding. If you're willing to suspend some disbelief, exploring the little microcosm of human society aboard the Snowpiercer is a lot of fun. Each lovingly designed train compartment reveals new details of the hierarchy, and helps piece together its history. The visuals are a real treat, incorporating CGI as well as any summer blcokbuster I've seen in recent years.
I was skeptical about Chris Evans in the lead role, playing the gloomy, bearded freedom fighter Curtis who pings about ten years older than Captain America, pre-defrost. However, he grew on me, and delivers a utterly ridiculous monologue in the last act with such sincerity, that he ultimately won me over. He's playing a fairly cliche character in a film full of over-the-top caricatures and larger than life personalities, but grounds him enough to pass muster. Other performances are hit or miss, but I loved the bureaucratic awfulness of Tilda Swinton's Minister Mason, and Ed Harris's benevolent madman. The Korean characters had potential, but they weren't given much to do, and often felt like an afterthought.
For me, the worldbuilding and the simple narrative were enough to keep me entertained and engaged, but I can easily see others being infuriated by the illogical nature of how of the "Snowpiercer" universe is constructed, the lack of depth to the characters, and some of the underlying philosophical ideas. This is sure to be a nitpicker's nightmare, starting with the idea of the train being powered by a perpetual-motion engine that can somehow sustain an entire self-enclosed ecosystem. I appreciate the film being so willing to grapple with big themes and being so ambitious in its scope, but the execution is far from perfect, and I sympathize with those who expected more from the film.
Of the three major South Korean directors who made films for Western audiences last year, Bong Joon-Ho has found the most success, and "Snowpiercer" suggests that he may have more mainstream prospects if he wishes to pursue them.