Last night I had the privilege of seeing Snowpiercer, the new feature by Korean director Bong Joon-ho, in its New York premiere as the centerpiece of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 6th annual BAM Cinema Fest. (This post also serves as “Filmmaker Firsts” post #16 since it was my first time seeing any of Bong’s films.) Director Bong – as the Q&A’s moderator, Variety critic Scott Foundas, always referred to him – was in attendance, as were screenwriter Kelly Masterson, co-producer Dooho Choi (who served as Bong’s translator) and one of the stars, John Hurt. Two other actors from the film, Clark Middleton and Paul Lazar, were in the audience.
Snowpiercer, which opens in New York theaters on June 27, is a good film, but it falls short of being the masterpiece that so many have claimed it to be. There are better dystopian tales, to be sure, and better action movies too. One of the major flaws is in the casting of Chris Evans as the hero. This was my first time seeing him as someone other than a Marvel superhero (as in the two Captain America films and The Avengers) and I must say I was unimpressed. While Evans generally does a decent job when called on to don his big-budget franchise tights and armor, he doesn’t fare as well when asked to play a normal human being and to actually emote. There are a few scenes when his character sheds tears and in none of those cases did they ever feel believable enough to affect me.
The basic premise of the film is that a global-warming-related ice age has rendered Earth an arctic wasteland and that the only surviving humans are passengers on a train, the Snowpiercer, though I don’t remember if anyone actually utters the name of the train during the film. Tilda Swinton, complete with Yorkshire accent, glasses and fake teeth, plays Mason, the prime minister of these last dregs of humanity (FYI: the character was originally written for a male actor) and Ed Harris plays Wilford, the mastermind behind the creation and maintenance of the train. Swinton is a vicious delight as a villain who is really just a pawn in the greater scheme of things. Besides her, the film’s most engaging performances are found in the work done by the other supporting players. John Hurt brings his usual gravitas to the role of Chris Evans’ mentor, which does not involve much for Hurt beyond giving advice in his wheezing tones and hobbling around with a wooden leg and crutches, although his solemnity elevates the role beyond whatever was on the page. Korean actor Song Kang-ho is very good (a purely cinematic presence, to paraphrase what John Hurt said in the Q&A) as the security expert who helps Evans in getting to the front of the train. Alison Pill also has some great moments as a deceptively cheerful schoolteacher.
Again, this isn’t a bad movie, but I don’t like being hit over the head with symbolism. The front of the train is the top echelon of society! The tail end is the lower class! Gee, who’d have thunk it? Good action sequences liven up the proceedings, but the banal dialogue and some emotionally manipulative moments involving families bring the film down for me. Anyway, it was cool seeing it at BAM’s Harvey Theater, which has a huge screen. The only real negative to the viewing experience was that the couple sitting directly in front of me was canoodling for the entire two hours. (Well, almost two hours; whenever the guy stopped to come up for air, he would noisily slurp water from a bottle for a few minutes.) Otherwise, it felt good to see a new movie before its general release to the public. Plus it was described as being the “director’s cut,” so that was an interesting bonus.