Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Cinema File #371: "Snowpiercer" Review

At its best, science fiction has to be more than just crazy, high concept gimmickry. Literary sci-fi lives or dies by its intellectual acumen, but the visual medium has allowed science fiction cinema to all too often dispense with making its audience think in favor of flashy but shallow visceral entertainment. Even when this is done exceptionally well as in this year’s Edge of Tomorrow, it always feels like something is missing from the equation. The new film Snowpiercer, criminally consigned to a small theatrical run and VOD, sets out to prove that this divide between smart and entertaining need not be an either or proposition, effortlessly blending thought provoking and socially conscious ideas with some of the most engaging action and suspense you’re likely to see all year, resulting in a movie that is everything a great sci-fi film should be.

Snowpiercer follows the last of humanity after an ill-fated attempt to prevent global warming freezes the Earth. The rest of us remain on a high tech super train, the Snowpiercer of the title, endlessly circling the planet, its people segmented into a class system where social status is aligned geographically. Those in the front represent the rich and sophisticated (the top 1%), while those in the back represent the rabble, left in squalor and only kept around for those few, mostly children, who are regularly taken for mysterious purposes. A revolt led by a reluctant anti-hero leads to an escalating war of attrition as an increasingly smaller group of rebels travel car by car in the hopes of seizing control of the engine, learning dark secrets about their tiny encapsulated world with each level of advancement.

The film is the English language debut of South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, best known to American audiences for redefining the Giant Monster movie years before Gareth Edwards with The Host (not to be confused with the terrible Stephenie Meyer movie of the same name). What The Host did for its genre, Snowpiercer does for post-apocalyptic fiction, instantly ranking as a modern classic alongside the best of the canon. It uses its dark futuristic setting not just to provide an interesting set-piece for its many action sequences, but to actually say something about the present, which sounds almost too obvious until you think about how many sci-fi movies waste perfectly good opportunities to do so. Leave it to someone from a whole different country to perfectly encapsulate our nihilistic class war politics and Randian social darwinism as public policy.

But if you’re not interested in the politics or social commentary, Snowpiercer still delivers as a dystopian action adventure piece even if you ignore all of the substance. Structurally, the film feels like a live action anime in the best sense of that comparison, its world implausible but completely believable, and its characters ranging from deadly serious to absolutely cartoonish with no disconnect from the reality the movie creates. The tone it establishes is so engaging from the start that there is no plot turn too insane or too depressing to take you out of it or stop you from having fun. The reveal of what their food is made of would just in itself be the final twist to an M. Night Shyamalan movie, but Snowpiercer is the kind of trip that throws it out at the end of act one and just keeps going.

2014 has been a particularly good year for science fiction and the slate of upcoming movies in the second half only looks better and better, but as of now at least, Snowpiercer is the one to beat, and its hard for me to conceive of what might do it. It is unlike anything you are going to see this year or likely in many years to come, wholly original and yet instantly relatable. Nothing about the narrative is predictable and the payoffs are many and uniformly satisfying. Rarely is there a movie that I might deign to call perfect, the closest in recent memory being my favorite movies of the past two years, The World’s End and Pirates: Band Of Misfits respectively, but I have absolutely no problem placing Snowpiercer in that category. Its a cliche, but there’s nothing else to say except that if you see no other movie this year, make it this one.

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