A non-stop, high-speed train, hurtling around planet Earth, sheltering hordes of survivors from a 21st century ice age? The mouth waters. Chris “Captain America” Evans, as the disheveled leader of a back-of-the-train revolution, that aims to overtake the front-of-the-train elite who keep the caboose population in a state of “soylent-brown”- gobbling squalor? Yeah, I’m stoked. Plus, it’s the English-language debut of director Bong Joon-ho, whose keen eye for mixing the horror/sci-fi genre with astute social awareness commentary brought us the incisive “The Host” in 2007? It’s a can’t miss! But is it a can’t fail? As I ponder my experience with the fantastic-looking “Snowpiercer”, it’s a question I’m still pondering. I really enjoyed this movie…but it missed the bullseye more than once.
What a cast it has though! But that also was the source of a few of its difficulties. Was Tilda Swinton too over-the-top, while Octavia Spencer supplies a middlebrow performance that’s cloyingly sentimental? That’s two former Best Supporting Actress winners who have been both sharper and much more effective. However, Chris Evans makes a good “every man” hero, and Bong regular, Song Kang-ho, is utilized to perfection as a zoned-out, drug-addicted securities expert. John Hurt is fine as the full-of-wisdom amputee, while Ed Harris is hilarious as the robe-and-slippers wearing Wilford, who will have you recalling both the “Wizard” of Oz, as well as Harris’s own Christof from 1998’s “The Truman Show”. Hurt’s on-board for stereotypical gravitas, but Harris really has fun with his portrayal–which is a hoot.
The design of the train is superb (inside and out), and the necessity of remaining within it, to avoid a guaranteed sub-zero demise, is gruesomely demonstrated. And I was especially impressed by a grade school classroom scene in one of the train’s cars, along with a sniper attack face-off that manages to incorporate both ends of the careening monorail. “Snowpiercer” is a helluva lot of fun. It’s just that its dystopian, societal-metaphor, class hierarchy plot device has been implemented sharper and better in other movies. But never on a train that can’t stop moving, while a frigid death awaits those who dare to step outside! And that’s what raises “Snowpiercer” above the limitations of its partially successful screenplay. The script, and a few portrayals, hinders its promised greatness. I may have expected “weight” too much here, but when something looks and sounds this good, the style easily manages to trump the stilted substance.