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Arts & Culture

Audrey Kupferberg: Snowpiercer

People are talking about a 2013 feature called SNOWPIERCER by South Korean filmmaker Joon-ho Bong.  It’s a sci-fi thriller about the aftermath of a failed climate-change experiment that freezes the Earth.  Most of the planet’s population dies, but a number are saved and boarded onto a train that circles the globe in an endless ride.  It is a train controlled by a self-proclaimed leader named Wilford, whose company designed the unique self-sustainable convoy.  When the film opens, the survivors have been passengers for eighteen years.

Those confined to the tail section live the life of concentration camp victims.  They are ragged, filthy, and sustain themselves on mysterious protein bars.  As the film progresses, the lifestyles of the survivors in the rest of the train are revealed.

When SNOWPIERCER originally screened in theaters in mid-2014, the box-office response was tepid.  Domestic total gross barely topped $4.5 million.  Then it hit Blu-ray, DVD and streaming, and its following of enthusiastic fans has grown.  I think it will be a cult favorite for years to come.

The film is based on a 1982 graphic novel from France, and carries evidence of its roots through occasional characters who oddly stand apart from the gritty realistic population of the train.  One is a cartoonish buck-toothed administrator named Mason, played entertainingly by TildaSwinton.  The point of the story is that the population is grouped by its leader.  There are haves and have-nots, and each of them needs to stay in their place—no matter how unfair or disgusting-- to make the plan work.

Chris Evans has the key role of Curtis, a brave and desperate soul from the tail section of the train who makes the trek through the entire train to the very front where Wilford himself resides.  His goal is to end the tyranny over the miserable masses in the tail section. Much of the viewer’s engagement with SNOWPIERCER depends upon Evan’s ability to lock in our attention.  But Evans has so little screen charisma that he leaves almost no impression.  Joon-ho Bong could have switched lead actors halfway through and Evans would not have been missed.  When, towards the end of the film, Evans shares screen time with spirited actor Ed Harris, Harris reminds the audience of the excitement that a first-rate performance can generate.  Another outstanding actor is Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer in a fairly minor role which she acts with passion.

As with many other sci-fi action pictures, the visuals and various effects are beautifully-crafted, occasionally awesome.  In some ways, Joon-ho Bong is a very talented director.  However, the script is weak; we mainly have robotic characters and a story that unfolds mechanically.  Is there a reason, then, to see SNOWPIERCER?  I think so.  The cynicism of the plot reflects the ways in which 24-hour news has portrayed the state of our world.  Are the Earth and its population capable of descending into such a revolting predicament?  It’s worth seeing SNOWPIERCER just to ponder that frightening thought! 

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She teaches film studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.