There was a fair amount of controversy over Snowpiercer long before the U.S. release was decided. Rumors surfaced several months ago that The Weinstein Company wanted to aim for a wide release, but only if the film was trimmed by 20 minutes. South Korean director Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Mother) wasn't especially interested in altering his English-language debut in order to please a more mainstream audience. After a rather public spat, his 125-minute cut stands, although the film is now restricted to a limited release domestically. This science-fiction oddity is based on the acclaimed French graphic novel Le Transperceneige.
The story takes us into a frighteningly frozen future where the only people left on Earth are circling the planet on a powerful, self-sustaining train where the passengers are separate and far from equal. An experiment to try and stop the effects of global warming failed and forced the entire planet into a new Ice Age that killed the majority of people on the planet. Those who survived made it onto the train, but the amenities vary based on social status. Those who could afford to pay to live in the front of the train are afforded plenty of comfort and food (not to mention drugs and freshly made sushi) while the poor are heavily persecuted in the tail compartment.
Chris Evans, Jamie Bell and Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer are among the citizens who have been barely surviving for 17 years in the back of the train when the film gets underway. They're covered in dirt, stacked like sardines and are frequently rounded up and counted by armed soldiers with short tempers. As the members of the tail start to rise up and plan to riot their way to the front of the train, they're met with great resistance. They battle their way into each new train car and slowly realize that there are plenty of people on board who are not surviving with only a small ration of protein bars to get the through the days.
One of these battles is reminiscent of the "hallway hammer" fight sequence in Oldboy, only kicked up about 100 notches. It's no surprise that the director of that film, Park Chan-wook, is one of the producers of Snowpiercer. As the rear passengers continue their quest for revenge, they're put in situations that could only really happen in the world of Korean film. Bloody, brutal and uncompromising, my biggest complaint is in regards to the CGI. The visuals are ambitious, but a few shots (particularly of avalanches and of the speeding train bursting through snow banks) are so unnatural that they took me out of the story, at least momentarily.
On the plus side, the casting of this film pulls off some genuine surprises. Before this, it was hard to imagine a world in which Captain America would star alongside the magnificent Tilda Swinton, but here they both are in excellent performances. Mr. Bong actually altered the gender of a character in the graphic novel to cast Swinton and she appears almost unrecognizable as an upper-class liaison from the train's engineer (Ed Harris) to the rear passengers. Korean actors Song Kang Ho and Ko Asung, who played father and daughter in The Host, return here as a father and daughter who are able to assist the rioting passengers by getting them into each successive train car.
Snowpiercer is an eerily violent (and potentially prescient) tale of class warfare that is unlike anything you've ever seen. It opens today at Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline.