Almost a year after becoming a blockbuster hit in Korea and seeing successful releases throughout Europe and Asia, Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer is finally playing in US theaters. The long wait involved threats to edit the film down by 20 minutes and throw in expository voice overs (pulling a Blade Runner, basically), and then the agreement to release the director’s cut involved giving the film a limited release with almost no promotion. Just a week ago, the plan was to max the release out at around 100 theaters. Yet the film performed high enough above expectations in NY and LA last weekend that this weekend it’s playing in 250 theaters (in the Boston area, it’s now playing at the Coolidge in addition to the previously-announced limited engagement at the Brattle). If it keeps packing houses like it did today at the Coolidge, this might just be the surprise hit of the summer.
It’d be a very pleasant surprise, since movies as entertaining and intelligent as Snowpiercer deserve all the support they can get. Sci-fi movies that don’t have built-in franchise recognition have been struggling recently, with the very good Edge of Tomorrow being branded a financial disappointment and Jupiter Ascending delayed to next year only a couple months before its previously scheduled release due to production troubles. Last summer’s US box office disappointment Pacific Rim managed to make enough money internationally to get a sequel greenlit, which I’m excited for, but while Guillermo Del Toro retained his personal idiosyncrasy while making an internationally-appealing movie, more often than not Hollywood uses reliance on the international market as an excuse dumb things down, to remove specificity in exchange for more of the same old generic but easily marketable franchise-based CGI blobs, except now they stop in China for a few minutes.
So here we have Snowpiercer, a US-Korean co-production based on a French comic with a diverse international cast, a truly international movie that refuses to dumb itself down. The premise: after chemicals released to combat global warming accidentally cause an ice age, humanity’s gone extinct except for the survivors living aboard a perpetually running train. Ruled by the engineer Wilford, worshiped as a prophet, the rich live in first class, while the poor live in the rear. With children from the rear being taken away by Minister Mason (played with sick humor by Tilda Swinton), the poor have had enough. Led by Curtis (Captain America‘s Chris Evans), a battle to take control of the train begins.
The dystopian class warfare story recalls everything from Metropolis to Brazil (Curtis’s mentor played by John Hurt is named Gilliam in homage) to last year’s Elysium (this is basically what I hoped that movie would be), but Snowpiercer manages to stay unique and inventive while building off of classic themes. The conceit of the train as metaphor for social stratification and as battleground is brilliant; each compartment is completely different from the last (the scene in the school compartment is easily the highlight), and Bong makes great use of the confined space and fast momentum for intense action sequences. Like Edge of Tomorrow it shows a video game-inspired sensibility applied to a tightly constructed narrative. It also shares themes of redemption with Edge, but here everything’s messier; there’s no reset button to save those who die, and moral allegiances are messier. The last twenty minutes, where the physical fighting mostly subsides and philosophical debate and tough moral reckoning takes precedence, make a challenging case for how the people at the top are able to morally justify staying there and keeping everyone else in their place.
Snowpiercer is a true ensemble piece. Though Curtis is the leader of the rebellion, he’s not necessarily the hero, and as intense as his story is, he’s not the most interesting in the cast. From major players like Octavia Spencer as the protective mother Tanya and Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung as Namgoong and Yona, a father and daughter pair of drug-addicted locksmiths, to bit parts such as the artist played by Clark Middleton and the teacher played by Allison Pill, the film creates a world filled with memorable personalities to love and love to hate. With clear emotional stakes and constant thrills throughout, filled with horror and heartbreak but still containing humor and hope, this is as exciting a movie as you’re likely to see all summer. If it’s playing near you, go see it. Captain America demands it!