Celebrating its twentieth anniversary, The Los Angeles Film Festival, presented by Film Independent, is shaping up to be one of the best in years. Led by its artistic director, film critic David Ansen, this year’s festival features an eclectic slate of nearly 200 feature films, shorts and music videos from over 40 countries, not to mention comedy and music showcases, panel discussions and master classes with some of the industry’s leading talent.
Setting the tone for this year’s festival as the opening night film is the North American premiere of South Korean genre maestro Boon Joon-ho’s post-apocaylptic thriller, “Snowpiercer,” starring Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, Ed Harris and Tilda Swinton.
And the tone “Snowpiercer” sets is decidedly unconventional, with a wildly imaginative premise that has one foot in the art house and the other in Hollywood style filmmaking. Based on the French graphic novel by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette and adapted by Boon and Kelly Masterson (“Before The Devil Knows Your Dead”), this film marks Boon’s English language debut, and aside from a few stilted performances, the transition is pretty smooth. A veritable visual treat, with beautifully choreographed action sequences, a doomsday scenario that keeps the audience in its clutches and a storyline as inventive as it is suspenseful, “Snowpiercer” has enough working in its favor to break out of the art house and reach a broader demographic.
Set in the year 2031, when the world is experiencing a second Ice Age due to a failed government experiment intended to combat global warming, the story takes place on a one-of-a-kind train called the Snowpiercer that has become the last refuge for the survivors. Since the severe weather conditions have rendered life outside the train unsustainable, everyone left on earth is stuck in what may best be described as a twisted human experiment.
Led by an enigmatic, Willy Wonka type figure named Wilford (Ed Harris) who is considered a god among passengers for creating the precious perpetual-motion engine which their entire existence is dependent upon, the Snowpiercer is divided by class, with the poor passengers lumped together at the tail of the train and the wealthier passenger sprawled out everywhere else. Life in the tail is an absolute horror show. Subjected to the most inhumane of conditions and forced to subsist on disgusting, mass-produced protein bars, the passengers are abused by hooded guards constantly and have their children snatched from their arms whenever the powers that be deem it necessary.
Conditions have always been wretched for those in the tail, but lately things have reached a boiling point because the passengers are receiving cryptic messages implanted in their protein bars that suggest they should stage a rebellion. Organized by three passengers – Curtis Everett (Chris Evans), Edgar (Jamie Bell) and the all-knowing wise man, Gilliam (John Hurt) – the poor passengers unite in a plot to overtake the guards, one train car at a time, in hopes of exacting revenge against their brutal overlord. If they are going to die on this train, the thinking goes, then they should at least be able to do so on their own terms.
Not wasting any time setting the rebellion in motion, the screenplay by Boon and Kelly Masterson keeps the tension ratcheted up full steam ahead, with each new section of the train introducing a whole new set of obstacles to overcome. Functioning as a bleak commentary on the dark side of human nature, “Snowpiercer” counteracts its depressing premise by infusing the story with black humor that is a hallmark of Boon’s storytelling style. Although the vast majority of the story focuses on the rebellion, the screenplay slyly incorporates the characters’ backstories along the way, effectively humanizing them and providing the audience with a level of emotional investment in their predicament.
Reinvigorating each new genre he takes on, from the crime-drama with “Memories Of Murder” to the horror genre with “The Host,” director Boon Joon-ho imbues each of his films with a cinematic language all his own, characterized by pitch black humor, highly stylized cinematography, unsettling scores and unpredictable storylines. Having established himself as among the finest international directors working today, Boon proves with “Snowpiercer” that he’s a master manipulator of audience emotion who can more than hold his own against the Hollywood heavyweights.
The impressive cast goes a long way in bringing this apocalyptic nightmare to life.Shedding his Captain America persona, Chris Evans proves himself to be a gifted, if dramatically limited, actor in the lead role of Curtis Everett. Here his performance is largely one-note, although this is understandably a result of the film’s somber atmosphere and the unsavory conditions in which the poor reside. Jamie Bell is effective as the brave young passenger that helps Curtis stage the rebellion, and Octavia Spencer is a raging inferno of desperation as a mother whose son is forcefully taken from her. The comic relief falls on the shoulders of the brainwashed disciples of Wilford, most notably Tilda Swinton and Allison Pill, who both put in excellent work here. And in an example of spot-on casting, Ed Harris takes on the role of the messiah-like Wilford, bringing gravitas and deranged genius to the forefront of his performance.
“Snowpiercer” is a film of extremes, where the bad guys are really bad, the fight scenes are insanely violent, and the stakes are nothing short of life and death. It’s also one hell of a thrill ride.
By Lucas Mirabella
Rated R for violence, language and drug content; 126 minutes