Less a smart action adventure, as some have billed it, and more a splendid science-fiction drama, Snowpiercer deserves to be one of the rare June-released features to receive recognition come award season.
The film has so many strengths that listing all of them will be impossible.
Start with director Joon-ho Bong.
In the hands of lesser directors slow motion is annoying, but Bong makes it beautiful and powerful, using it to redefine action sequences; here the violence does not excite us. It makes us recoil, makes us wish these characters could find peaceful common ground.
The director’s audio design is even more impressive. Because the sounds of the train’s movement are omnipresent, we feel like passengers, confined by this high speed home, just like Curtis (Chris Evans), Namgoong Minsu (Kang-ho Song), Edgar (Jamie Bell) and the other characters.
Many of Bong’s images are startling beautiful, both within and outside of the train.
Simply put, Snowpiercer is artistically and technically fantastic.
It is also well acted. The principle performers are universally strong, but special mention to an almost unrecognizable Tilda Swinton (Mason), who is award-worthy good as a duplicitous schemer only interested in her personal well-being.
John Hurt (Gilliam) is almost Swinton’s equal. He gives his character a manipulative edge, one that is equally subtle and important. Hurt single-handedly shows that Gilliam might not be everything Curtis thinks he is.
Kang-ho Song layers his character just as well.
And ChrisEvans anchors Snowpiercer admirably, at least in part because he lets other actors attract the most attention.
Bong and co-writer Kelly Masterson’s screenplay is terrific. All characters are sufficiently developed. The plot is often surprising, not least because the writers dare to have their characters make difficult choices. And so forth.
Snowpiercer’s themes are not delivered heavy-handedly. Amongst other themes, this film makes us think about caste systems and wealth disparities, at the same time it spurs consideration of environmental abuse.
In fact, this picture is almost perfect. Maybe some lines of dialogue contradict others. Maybe Gilliam’s role could have been better explored. Maybe there’s another minor flaw or two.