Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer is a masterpiece. As far as futuristic, allegorical dystopian sci-fi epics go, it is of the highest order, on a par with classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Terminator 2 and Children of Men.
After the disappointing Hollywood ventures of Stoker and the mediocre The Last Stand, made by Korea’s two other bona fide directors, Park Chan Wook and Kim Ji Woon, respectively, Snowpiercer not only distinguishes itself as a brilliant, cinematic tour-de-force, but is also Korea’s first English-language feature film. Hollywood’s thumbprints are not to be found anywhere on this $40 million vehicle from Korean conglomerate CJ Entertainment.
It’s ironic that a film essentially about class struggle was funded by CJ, whose allegedly corrupt chairman is currently behind bars awaiting charges, but regardless, they fronted the capital for Bong to turn his vision into reality. $40 million would be considered low-budget in Tinseltown, but in Korea the “a lot with a little” mentality goes a long way, and Bong has crafted an epic in league with the entire fleet of this summer’s $200 million blockbusters.
Based on an old French graphic novel, the film’s premise is of humanity’s last few survivors on a train that circles the globe, frozen over seventeen years ago in a plan to end global warming gone horribly wrong, and the class struggle that subsequently emerges inside the train. Like many other dystopian sci-fi epics before it, there are familiar elements here that we’ve seen before but the themes of self-reflection, love, and the preservation of innocence remain Bong’s added touch.
Chris Evans, in a performance screaming for an Oscar nomination, plays Curtis, who leads the impoverished lower class residents at the back of the train on a revolt to take control of the engine from Wilford, the train’s evil leader, and establish a sort of utopia on the train. Along the way, he enlists the help of Namgoong Minsu, played by Song Kang-Ho, who holds his own wonderfully amidst a cast of Western A-listers.
While this narrative arc feels familiar, we have the Korean Kino-Eye at work, separating the film from anything else that has come before it, and the ending may render your heart frozen with its sorrow forged from truth. Bong is not afraid to boldly go where few filmmakers have gone before, and (as has become the defining trait of Korean cinema) both tug at your heartstrings and satisfyingly disappoint your expectations at the same time. Twists will occur that you will want not to be true. And you, the audience, in this film about humanity and the hypocritical condition that defines us, will be asked a haunting question whose meaning you’ll only understand after watching the film: “Have you ever been alone on the train?”
High on action, heavy in emotion, and thematically relevant to our time, Snowpiercer is cinema that simply must be experienced and, like the best films, has the power to change the world.