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By Shane M. Dallmann

snow1

I hadn’t even heard of this film two weeks ago and then all of a sudden it was the rage… the first English-language film of Korean director Park Hoon-Jung (THE HOST, which had some great stuff but which was ultimately over-rated in my book; and MOTHER, which I still haven’t seen) is now here, and while fans are up in arms about the “limited release,” at least they’re getting the full-length version.

So much to process… so what is SNOWPIERCER? It’s a blockbuster-budgeted adaptation of a French graphic novel, for a start. In the not-too-distant, our efforts to curb global warming have resulted in an apocalyptic ice age, and the remnants of humanity have been collected in a massive “supertrain” prophetically designed by a certain forward-thinking scientist by the name of Wilford. As long as the perpetually-powered train keeps circling the globe, those safely inside can survive–to venture outside is near-instantaneous freezing death. Ah, but the powers that be who run the train have ensured that human society will continue as it always has… with the elite enjoying the “good life” in the front section and the common rabble sweating it out in the windowless tail, existing on nauseating “protein bars” and occasionally (and, of course, unwillingly) giving up certain of their number (including young children) to those up front–for whatever reason…

We’re about sixteen years into this situation as the movie kicks off, which means that thirty-something Curtis (Chris Evans) has spent half of his life on the train and barely remembers Earth as it was. He’s slowly and methodically planning a revolution (it wouldn’t be the first one) which will lead “his” people to take over the front of the train by force, but he doesn’t consider himself a “leader” as such… it takes the gentle coaxing of a crippled, elderly former scientist named Gilliam (John Hurt) to groom him for a position he really wants to avoid. Words eventually translate into carefully planned action, and once Curtis secures the services of security engineer Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song), and his teenage daughter (Ah-sung Ko) he looks to gain access to each and every car in sequence. All that’s asked of him in return is a generous supply of a powerful hallucinogenic forged from industrial waste… but of course the price turns out to be a lot higher…

Conceptually and politically, we’ve seen many treatments of this theme ranging all the way back to METROPOLIS and, most recently, the HUNGER GAMES franchise; the grubby solidarity of the working class and the debauchery of the higher-ups may not be enough in itself to draw a direct line to the latter, but then Tilda Swinton steps in as Marshall Mason… this gaudy/ghastly/genial figurehead may well be cut from the same cloth as Effie Trinkett, but Swinton has no problem whatsoever making Mason her own unforgettable creation in a truly no-holds-barred performance, whether she’s overseeing a remarkably cruel (and symbolic) punishment for subversion or finding herself reluctantly along for the ride…

Mason is, of course, just one of many powerful characters to turn up in the epic narrative, and the HUNGER GAMES, etc. comparisons take a back seat to the unique structure of SNOWPIERCER–the enormously appealing gimmick here is that each open gate leads to a new wonder, a new horror or a new danger; at one moment you may be marveling at a preserved microcosm of the ocean itself; at another you may find yourself with guards armed to the teeth with various sharp implements; or you may find yourself back in grade school (in one of the best scenes, during which I acknowledge that I failed to recognize Alison Pill as the teacher thanks to her platinum-blonde wig). The violence isn’t nearly as off the charts as, for example, a RAID movie, but it’s quite hard-hitting all the same, and the style ranges from brutal hand-to-hand combat in a luxury spa car to a uniquely-staged long-distance gun duel…

There is just SO much going on to hold your attention, but any of it can stop as abruptly as it starts (Happy New Year!) because SOME business just can’t wait… in short, it’s a wild ride indeed, and there’s no excuse to pass it up on the big screen should you be afforded the opportunity… that said, I have to be honest and report my one disappointment. Much as the majority of critics agreed at the time that APOCALYPSE NOW was great until you actually got to Marlon Brando? That’s approximately how I felt about SNOWPIERCER when we actually get to Ed Harris (which is not a reflection on the actor or his performance in any way). By this point in the narrative (especially as it has NOT been cut by 20m as was apparently threatened), we’ve quite been made to understand the point of just what’s going on and why it’s been set up that way, and here we’re subjected to a few too many melancholy reiterations of what we’ve already been told–and even though the action is still raging on in the background, the symbolism starts to get just a bit (dare I say it?) heavy-handed.

That’s not nearly enough to tone down my recommendation, however. This one’s got all the action and excellent special effects you could ask for… but unlike many a brainless “epic,” it keeps giving you MORE.