Snowpiercer – Review (spoiler-free)

Snowpiercer (or “La Transperceneige”, which is the much stronger-sounding title of the original French graphic novel) is a difficult movie to review. Going by the gut feeling, I’d have to say I enjoyed it a lot. When I left the cinema, I realized I was actually holding my breath throughout most of the second half, and my hands were shaking with tension: that is a very rare thing to happen, and mostly after watching an Asian horror.

The visuals are nothing short of stunning, especially in the second half (of both the movie and the train). Of the many recent graphic novel adaptations, this one does probably the best job of having a strong “comic book” feel without over-stylizing to a fault.

On the other hand – somewhat consistent with previous of Bong’s work – there’s a lot of wtf-ery and facepalm-worthy moments; the plot is shot through with holes like Swiss cheese, and despite what must be the third of the film spent on lengthy exposition dialogue, a lot of the symbolism, including most of the secondary characters’ backstories, remain unexplained. If you try to engage your analytic part of the brain too much, you may leave the cinema disappointed. Too many things just “do not compute”.

But if you focus on those, you focus on all the wrong things. The best review of Snowpiercer I’ve read so far (The Philosophy of Snowpiercer) says this:Snowpiercer is as good a sci-fi movie as Animal Farm is a farming manual. Despite the sci-fi trappings, this movie is an allegory, a brutal fairy-tale. Trying to over-analyze Snowpiercer is like trying to scrutinize Terry Gilliam’s movies for plot-holes and lack of realism. Indeed the closest cinematic equivalent to Snowpiercer I can think of would have to be “Brazil”.

The plot is linear almost by definition, as straightforward as the train’s relentless run, but that doesn’t mean it’s not smart. The movie has a lot more to say about tyrannies and revolutions than the average simplistic Hollywood fare in the vein of “V for Vendetta” and “Elysium”, and what it says rings more true. It is also much grander in the scope of its satire; even the very ending reveals still another layer of social criticism (hint: who dies, who survives?).

I can’t find much fault with the acting, given the material, though characters here are secondary to the plot. Chris Evans plays pretty much a gruff Chris Evans, or a less-crazy Christian Bale – imagine Captain America who had to live through a death camp. Tilda Swinton’s “Thatcher” is a delicious caricature. Hurt and Harris give decent, but unremarkable performances. By far the best are the two Korean actors – Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko – who shine throughout; you can tell they struck the best rapport with the director. I also enjoyed the largely silent performance of Luke Pasqualino (Skins, Musketeers), and I hope being in this movie will kick-start his career in Hollywood.

Snowpiercer had the potential for a 5-star masterpiece. It’s certainly one of the more engaging, thought-provoking and original sci-fi movies of recent years: it could be easily marketed as “The Matrix” of the new generation. If it falls short it’s because of too many unexplained quirks in the plot, and the fact that there’s simply way too much of the story left to tell, even for the full uncut 125 minutes. Perhaps if Snowpiercer was made into a trilogy like Matrix, or a high-budget TV series instead, it could have reached true brilliance.

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