Review by Louise Keller:
The bold cinematic style of Boon Joon-ho strikes gold in this striking and powerful drama in which control and the order of things are key. With its futuristic themes of the consequences of global warming and the resultant deep freeze, the train called the Snowpiercer is a devastating metaphor in which mankind's delineation is encapsulated into carriages depicting superiority. Graphically violent and piercing in its statement, the unravelling of civilisation and the trampoline from which we are thrust resonates absolutely, while Chris Evans is resolute as the protagonist with whom we journey from the tail to the front of train.
The first half of the film firmly establishes the disturbing reality in the rear of the train, in which the apocalyptic life-style negates any quality of life, as it concentrates solely on survival of the fittest. Jelly-like protein bars are the sole form of sustenance and the conditions are not fit for sub-human life. It is in these conditions that we meet Curtis (Evans), the leader-in-waiting to Gilliam (John Hurt), a one-armed and one-legged elder who schemes to break down the barriers in order to reach the train's creator Wilford (Ed Harris). It is the closed eco system that predicates the plight of the passengers - something that we do not discover until the story and the journey progresses.
Tilda Swinton is terrifying as Mason, Wilford's right hand person, who is the go-between between the front and rear of the train. Her lack of morality and compassion is hugely confronting, her delivery chilling. There's a small band of characters with whom we engage from the rear (including Octavia Spencer and Jamie Bell) but it's the appearance of Song Kang-ho as the drug-addicted security expert and his 17 year-old daughter, played by Ko Ah-sung, who bring an extra dimension to the action.
There are many revelations as Curtis proceeds to the train's front carriages; all the while, imagery of the speeding train in the bleak, frozen outside world perpetuates. The scene outside the final door behind which Wilford sits, when Curtis reveals his secret, is one of the film's most potent. Unsurprisingly, the confrontation between Wilford and Curtis, when the front and rear of the chain of life represented finally meets, does not disappoint.
Production design is outstanding and the music score is affecting. Based on the French comic book Le Transperceneige, there are many memorable moments in this exceptional and unique film. The thrust of the film is allegorical and much of it disturbs, but one thing is certain, you will never look at train travel the same away again. Highly recommended.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Audaciously conceived (and designed) and despite its premise not really about climate change and nature but human nature, Snowpiercer is a visual metaphor for a world hurtling towards ... nothing more than its own tail, as the train goes round and round the globe over a 12 month period. There is no discussion at all about the evident foolishness of humans attempting to 'correct' the climate, which is the reason for the entire catastrophe that unfolds. Still, it makes a change from a rogue virus, aliens or a tsunami ...
The novelty of a train as the escape-proof prison symbol for mankind is never allowed to become a mere convenience, and the claustrophobic setting ensures the thriller retains its tension throughout.
The harsh environment of the tail end of the train is where the downtrodden, underfed and oppressed live in rags, while the middle of the train offers a middle class lifestyle; it's the engine that is the object of adulation, just ahead of first class and its mink wearing young women. The engine is eternal, infinite in its relentlessness and a mechanical symbol of deity, with Mr Wilford (Ed Harris) its high priest, who has the cool disdain for his fellow humans (and the same enjoyment of decent food) as Hannibal Lecter.
The film is a terrific ride - as it were - even though it doesn't really make much sense outside its carefully constructed metaphor for humanity and our foolishness, our viciousness and our stupidity. (Hardly a revelation ....)
The casting carries the day, though, with Tilda Swinton enlarging her character (the No 2 to Mr Wilford, it seems), with a larger than normal denture and oversized performance - but it works in the context.
Chris Evans as Curtis the emerging new leader of the oppressed masses, John Hurt as the elderly leader passing the baton with wise advice, Kang-ho Song as the security specialist good at opening the locked gates on the way towards the front of the train, and Jamie Bell as Curtis' protégé - all deliver fine work, as does Octavia Spencer as one of the mothers to have her 5 year old taken away for a secret role in the Wilford plan.
Best enjoyed as a thriller on steel wheels with a salutary moral, Snowpiercer is cinematic and compelling, despite its flaws, which emerge on too close a scrutiny of the screenplay, which tried hard to be original, but is caught up in its own story cogs. The notion of humans having a natural place in the world they have created has echoes of Metropolis (1927), an early sci fi movie that has never dated.
Published October 2, 2014