This Fourth of July weekend, there is only one action blockbuster you need to see, and its name is "Snowpiercer." True, Bong Joon-Ho's dystopian thriller cost less than $40 million, which is probably less than "Transformers: Age of Extinction" spent on any of its major action setpieces, but it's every bit as action-packed, and a damn sight easier to follow. It's even got a bonafide movie star at its center in "Captain America's" Chris Evans. In fact, Evans is more convincing a star in "Snowpiercer" than in the Marvel movies, where his part could conceivably be filled by any square-jawed all-American type; he puts the movie on his muscled shoulders and runs with it like a linebacker heading for the end zone. If "Age of Extinction" is where incompetence meets the avant-garde, "Snowpiercer" is a rock-solid exemplar of classic cinematic virtues. Even its cast feels like a throwback to the golden age of international co-productions, with Bong favorite Song Kang-Ho acting alongside Tilda Swinton, John Hurt and "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days'" Vlad Ivanov.
In an interview with the Boston Globe's Ty Burr, Radius-TWC's Tom Quinn said the Weinstein Company offshoot released "Snowpiercer" opposite "Transformers: Age of Extinction" "to make the direct statement that I feel this movie is as big, even though we’re not as widely launched. I know which one I would go see." Given that Harvey Weinstein tried to make Bong trim the film until pushback from fans and critics forced him to relent, and that Weinstein retaliated by scaling back from a wide to limited release — and that even some art houses declined to book the film because it was being handled by Radius, whose multiplatform release strategies alienate theater owners with their on demand component — Quinn's explanation sounds like a cross between making the best of a bad situation and simple spin. It reminds me of the advice-dispensing bros in Cameron Crowe's "say anything..." who explain why in spite of their purported expertise with the ladies they're sitting alone outside a convenience store on a Saturday night: "By choice, man." (NB: There still seems to be some confusion about whether or not the movie made to American theaters untouched, but as Russ Fischer puts it at Slash Film, "There Is Only One Cut of 'Snowpiercer.'")
Regardless of the reason, critics answered the charge, proclaiming "Snowpiercer" to be not only "Age of Extinction's" superior, but that it beat Michael Bay's megabudget explosion-fest at its own game. It's also, despite some hedging about the tonal whipsaws of Bong's movies and South Korean cinema in general, substantially more coherent and, by any objective measure, less weird than Michael Bay's movie, which plays like a 165-minute highlight reel. Despite its outlandish premise — the world has been thrown into a new Ice Age by humankind's ill-fated attempt to reverse global warming, and all that remains of humanity is confined to a single, endlessly circling train — "Snowpiercer" establishes its objectives with almost schematic clarity. A group of proletarians confined to the tail of the "rattling ark" must make their way to its engine, one car at a time, in order to confront the train's creator, an absent and possibly apocryphal inventor named Wilford. The train's modular nature allows Bong to reinvent its design with each new car — one holds a grinder where the protein blocks that are the lower classes' only source of nutrition are produced from ground-up offal; another is an incandescently brightly colored classroom, heavily reminiscent of "Bioshock," where Allison Pill's cheery propagandist schools the children of the wealthy in the creed of the "Sacred Engine" — but the would-be revolutionaries' movement, always from screen left to screen right, is ineluctable. There are only two ways to move: forward or backward.
Although it will likely never be in more than a few hundred theaters, "Snowpiercer" does go wide(r) this week — a complete list of cities is here — and you should see it, not because it "needs your support," but because you love great movies, and this is one of them. Its box-office take won't come close to "Age of Extinction's," but I like to think that if the theaters were to switch the two movies, Folgers-style, Michael Bay's audience might like what they see.
More reviews of "Snowpiercer."
David Ehrlich, Badass Digest
"Snowpiercer" is like watching a typical Hollywood action movie reflected against a funhouse mirror. It looks and sounds similar to the thoughtless garbage churned out by our studio system (noticeably cheaper, though), but it’s also dark, overtly political and profoundly weird.
Chuck Bowen, Slant
This is an angry and bleak film, as well as an old-fashioned meat-and-potatoes genre entry concerned with passé niceties such as atmosphere and spatial coherence.
Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York
"Snowpiercer" is a headlong rush into conceptual lunacy — but you’ll love it anyway. Hollywood rarely goes quite this nuts, and the foreign-made production, helmed by South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho ("The Host"), gets at a kind of daring, giddy excitement that plays like something our movies have lost.
J. Hoberman, New York Review of Books
The spectacle of class warfare aboard a 1,001-carriage super train makes for the most overtly leftwing pop movie in the eight years since "V for Vendetta" brandished the black flag of anarchy as the only recourse in a media-driven police state. "Snowpiercer" has enjoyed great success abroad, in part because its political program is couched as an action film. In fact, you might call the movie — freely adapted by a South Korean filmmaker from a French graphic novel, shot mainly in the Czech Republic with a largely Anglo-American cast, and intended for the largest possible international audience, China included — an example of globalism, or perhaps anti-globalist globalism, in action.
Anne Bilson, Telegraph
This is "Elysium" plus "Speed" plus "The Wizard of Oz" plus Bluebeard's Castle plus pure Bong. What in most Hollywood films would be the climax of the movie starts playing out at around the half-hour mark; the rest of the film turns into an epic journey to the front of the very, very long train, the larger quest made up of a series of unexpected obstacles, odd encounters and astonishing tableaux.
Eric Kohn, Indiewire
With the action and tone fluctuating from car to car, "Snowpiercer" is a strange, erratic piece of genre filmmaking, but it delivers the excitement and visual polish of countless Hollywood blockbusters even as its class warfare metaphors hold tight. It's the kind of distinctive, compelling spectacle that studios almost never make.
Grady Hendrix, Film Comment
The movie could not be more straightforward. And yet it’s this perceived predictability that becomes the movie’s greatest strength. Watching "Snowpiercer" is like having the crap beaten out of you by a judo master: the weight of your own expectations keep dumping you on the floor. The predictable sci-fi blockbuster plot points keep getting overturned in ways both large and small.
Jonathan Romney, Film Comment
"Snowpiercer" doesn’t make sense in either spatial or social terms — but why should it? As metaphor, conversely, it’s extremely rich — and it’s precisely because things don’t add up logically (even in the minimal way we normally expect them to in blockbusters) that the metaphor works all the better.
A.O. Scott, New York Times
At times, “Snowpiercer” recalls Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” both in its steampunk décor and in its grimly satirical look at the workings of power and privilege in a totalitarian corporate future. Its lessons about human nature are thought-provoking, but perhaps not as memorable as its motley, eccentric display of humanity in extremis. And though the movie is playfully postmodern in its pastiche of styles and its mingling of sincerity and self-consciousness, there is also something solidly old-fashioned about the way it tells its story.
Keith Phipps, the Dissolve
The cars grow cleaner as the rebels move forward, but they also become more grotesque. It’s almost certainly no coincidence that Hurt’s character bears Terry Gilliam’s name; Gilliam’s influence, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s, can be felt in the production design, particularly as Curtis and his companions hit the more decadent parts of the train. Bong directs forcefully, but he slows down the pace when it counts, taking time to soak in the details of some areas of the train, and late in the film, giving Curtis a devastating monologue that reveals how he became who he is.
Andrew O'Hehir, Salon
This may be the most ambitious and capacious dystopian critique since “The Matrix” 15 years ago, and it’s one that seeks to offer a hopeful and even transcendent vision. But such things cannot be purchased cheaply, as even Katniss Everdeen understands after her adolescent fashion. The great triumph of “Snowpiercer” may lie in its final and tragic understanding that if we are ever to escape our train of planetary destruction, our delusional consumer paradise built on the suffering of many, the price will be more than most of us are willing to pay.
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, A.V. Club
The train — which travels endlessly on a loop of track — is a double metaphor, representing both a real-world social structure and the narrative itself. The movie is blunt about this; at one point, a character refers to the Curtis-led uprising as “a blockbuster production with a devilishly unpredictable plot.” Any revolution that happens aboard is a byproduct of the train’s enclosed system, and changing the direction of political power only helps to preserve its existing layout. The only solution involves disrupting the momentum and focus of the narrative. That’s bound to peeve some viewers, but that’s the point; "Snowpiercer’s" self-destructive “no gods, no masters” politics aren’t meant to be agreeable — they’re meant to upend the movie itself.