Mini-Review: Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer (2013): It’s Like Noah Only in a Dystopian Future and on a Train, Also: Lots of Snow and Ice and Brrr

Welcome aboard the Snowpiercer: A magical train that has been running for 18 years now, safely transporting the last human survivors in circles around the world. Global warming has rendered earth uninhabitable: The year is 2031 and our green planet has turned into a white popsicle. Unhappy with the dictatorship on the train Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) decides to take matters into his own hands and start a revolution. His mission? To get to the end of the train where evil Ed Harris, I mean Wilford, is controlling the sacred engine. How long will it take? Just about two hours, give or take. 

Snowpiercer (설국열차, Seolgugyeolcha) is Bong Joon-Ho’s fifth feature film and the first one to be predominantly in English and with a predominately Anglo-saxon cast. The story is based on a French graphic novel Le Transperceneige (literally: “the snowpiercer) by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand & Jean-Marc Rochette. The film is mostly plot-driven and is best described as sci-fi/action/drama. There is a lot of forced social commentary, which gets very tiring after like five minutes or so. Bong’s Korean humor translates poorly into English unfortunately and Chris Evans completely forgets how to be charismatic.

Aside from an interesting premise and a couple striking visuals, especially as the revolution moves to the luxurious head of the train, the actors are the most impressive thing about Snowpiercer. Bong assembles a great cast with fantastic actors such as John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer and Tilda Swinton (once again in ridiculous makeup). Unfortunately, once again the director’s notes seem to be lost in translation, because these wonderful people are, for the most part, completely wasted here. The two South Korean actors however, Song Kang Ho and Ko Asung, give great performances, which makes me wish the whole film was in Korean, with a Korean crew and a Korean cast.

I don’t like pointing out plot holes, but Snowpiercer does get a bit convoluted and there are many question marks, which maybe are explained in the graphic novel, but fail to be addressed in the movie. While the action set pieces are quite entertaining and moderately thrilling, there again some of it doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. Being a mid-sized budget film I would have also expected better visual effects, however they’re never really bad either. The futuristic costume design (Catherine George) is interesting and I already mentioned Hong Kyung-pyo‘s (Mother, Love Exposure) inspired cinematography.

Overall, although I didn’t have high expectations for Snowpiercer, it is a bit disappointing, especially because it’s Bong Joon-Ho and we know him to be better than this. I am convinced that a big part of what doesn’t work in the film would be a whole different story if Bong was working in his native language. The film does have some fascinating ideas and poses some interesting questions, but it does so in a rather heavy-handed way, sacrificing characters to action and spectacle. Not that there’s anything wrong with wanting to be entertaining, but if you can’t create compelling characters your viewers will remain cold.

6 out of 10


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