John Hurt, Chris Evans and Jamie Bell star in SNOWPIERCER.

Snowpiercer

South Korea. Directed by Joon-ho Bong, 2013. Starring Chris Evans, Kang-ho Song, Tilda Swinton. 126 minutes.

Of all the possible ways the tattered remnants of humanity could survive a global Hoth-pocalypse, “on a train” doesn’t seem like a particularly likely option. But that’s the option Joon-ho Bong chose to explore in Snowpiercer, a very loose adaptation of an early-’80s French graphic novel.

Seventeen years after a botched attempt to counteract global climate change causes a world-wide ice age that kills almost every living thing on the planet, the last few living humans travel round the world on the Snowpiercer, a massive train powered by a perpetual-motion locomotive. Society has degenerated to become a literal dystopia-in-a-box (well, series of boxes): a highly regimented class system with a place for everything and everything in its place. The poor live in squalor in the tail cars; the well-to-do dwell in the lap of luxury towards the front; and in the engine car, Wilford, the Great Engineer, rules over them all. The posh Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) periodically visits the train’s slums to dispense justice and tell the urchins who live there how lucky they are that they get to live here at all.

But rebellion is in the air, led by the elderly Gilliam (John Hurt) and his protege Curtis (Chris Evans). They plan to abduct Namgoong “Nam” Minsu (Kang-ho Song), the drug-addled tech who designed the train’s security systems, and use his knowledge to force their way to the front of the train and finally depose Wilford.

Cinematic history, I’d like to introduce you to Snowpiercer, the film that will be remembered as its generation’s equivalent of The Matrix if there’s any justice in the universe.

One of the axes you’ve probably seen me grind on this site in the past (and believe me, I plan to grind it even more in the future) is how Nobody Makes Science Fiction Movies Like They Used to Anymore. Science fiction was once known as “the literature of ideas.” Now it’s just a flimsy excuse for whatever hunk is fashionable this week to pop his shirt off and kick ass. Not that there’s anything wrong with action and eye-candy; I liked Godzilla and Pacific Rim and The Avengers just fine.

Snowpiercer looks similar on the surface. There’s plenty of effects work and gunfire and explosions and Chris Evans punching people. But this time those things serve the ideas and story instead of the other way round. Bong and screenwriting partner Kelly Masterson have actually put thought into the setting, how a society like this would sustain itself and what its leaders would need to do to keep the structure they’d imposed on it in place. The allegory is obvious, but it works because we can see ourselves responding to these situations in these ways. The answers it poses to its questions have a libertarian slant–part-and-parcel of the modern dystopia–but small touches keep the ideology at bay (Swinton’s performance, for example, which I’ll get to in a bit) and understands the price a revolution would have to pay for “liberation.”

Great ideas and a thoughtful plot are wonderful things to have, but audiences really like to have them married to good characterization and acting, and Snowpiercer offers us these as well. Both standout performances are supporting roles. Swinton’s Mason is a self-important, self-righteous latter-day aristo: try imagining a Tea Party caricature with a North of England Accent, or a cross between Margaret Thatcher and Pauline from The League of Gentlemen. Song is perfect as the unhinged Nam, a rogue who clearly knows more than he’s letting on.

Curtis is a bit of a cliché, the grim Byronic hero, but both the dialogue and Evans’s performance succeed in making the character engaging where so many other attempts have failed. It’s been said that Hurt has played the same damn character in most of his last ten movies and his Doctor Who episode, but here he demonstrates how he became the go-to man for this type of character. Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, and a gloriously goofy Ewan Bremner–there simply isn’t a bad performance in this film.

Bong’s masterful direction pulls it all together. Snowpiercer feels like an impossible environment, a place that shouldn’t work in as little space as it has, but he makes it work by starting off in an oppressively claustrophobic mode and gradually opening space up as he goes along. The editing and pacing are similarly effective, and the film benefits by cutting its dark tone with a healthy dose of satire.

If I have any complaints, it’s with the massive fight sequence that comes about halfway through the film–it does its job well enough, but it feels more “awesome” than credible and at any rate it’s not the sort of thing I’m much into. Your mileage may vary.

Every so often a movie comes along and somehow, against all odds, manages to get everything right. Strong plot, thought-provoking story, memorable characters, terrific performances, exhilarating action, beautiful design and effects…a movie that is, in short, all things to all people. Snowpiercer is one of those movies. Treasure it.

Snowpiercer poster

Oldboy

Retro Review: Oldboy

South Korea. Directed by Chan-wook Park, 2003. Starring Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang. 119 minutes.

Are you a good person?

Silly question, right? Of course you are. Look at you, your life. Your family loves you. Your friends consider you a boon companion. You work hard and your boss respects you. You donate to charity, you volunteer at the senior center.

Okay, maybe you have a couple of vices. You might drink too much, or spend more money than you can afford on luxuries. Perhaps you cheat on your spouse. But you probably don’t.

Or maybe you have a secret. Were you the school bully? Did you swipe money from the collection basket? Tell a lie that hurt someone else? Probably–causing trouble is what kids do–but it was so long ago that you can’t remember and even if you could it doesn’t matter, right? Right.

So what are you doing in this prison cell?

Sure, it looks like a hotel room–bed, television, chest of drawers, bathroom and shower–but don’t let that fool you. It’s not like you can just walk out whenever you want: the door is bolted shut from the outside, and the window is fake. Someone slides your meals through a hatch in the door.

Seems as if you’ve made an enemy over the years. Maybe you’re not the upstanding citizen you believe yourself you are, and you’ve made a lot of enemies. Someone put you here, but who?

And what will you do when you get out?

In Oldboy, Chan-wook Park’s classic 2003 thriller, protagonist Dae-su Oh finds himself in this very position. The film thoughtfully considers its twin themes of revenge and redemption. It’s easy enough to say “revenge brings catharsis” or “revenge doesn’t bring catharsis” but as a dramatic theme, revenge is a bit more complex than that and you can tell Park and his screenwriters put more thought into it than many other filmmakers might. It all culminates in a conclusion that left my eyes watering and my jaw agape.

The film’s streak of dark comedy (the suicidal man on the rooftop is a treat) shifts to a darker, more serious tone over the course of the film, with such subtlety that you might not even notice you stopped laughing. The script deals with some difficult subject matter, but treats it with sensitivity and respect instead of sensationalizing and exploiting it.

The film hinges on the performances of its four lead actors. Min-sik Choi is nothing short of phenomenal in the role of Dae-su. His physical presence is highly effective, particularly in the half-hour or so following his release from imprisonment. As befits a man who’s spent the last fifteen years of his life in a space no larger than a spacious bedroom, he holds himself very compactly. His movements are quick, his reflexes squirrelly. Throughout the film he moves like a tightly wound spring that could uncoil at any moment.

That’s enough to impress by itself, but Choi also has the emotive skills to sell such a complex character. You can readily buy him as a man whose decade and a half of imprisonment have driven him more than a little crazy, and his ability to change moods on a dime (note two scenes where he goes from rage to apologetic simpering in a matter of milliseconds) is magical.

His opposite number is Ji-tae Yoo as Lee, Oh’s enemy and the man behind his imprisonment. Lee starts the film as a straight-up villain but as the film progresses we learn more about the exact nature of the relationship between Oh and Lee and Yoo deftly maneuvers through the shift in sympathy. Hye-jung Kang is adorable as Mi-do, a young sushi chef who starts the film as Oh’s ally and who eventually becomes his lover. Dal-su Oh’s Mr. Park, the manager of the unique prison Dae-su finds himself in, is memorable and entertaining as the sneering baddie Yoo doesn’t allow himself to play.

Visually, the film is a delight to watch from start to finish. Park’s visual sense is impeccable and much of the visual imagery is delightful (Dae-su’s emergence from the steamer trunk is a particular favorite moment). He doesn’t skimp on the blood or the action; the violent sequences stick in the mind for days afterward (I’ll never look at a claw hammer the same way) and the fights are clever, inventive and engaging. I appreciated how Dae-su, while a proficient fighter, is never portrayed as a superhuman badass and this anchors the suspension of disbelief.

It may seem like I haven’t given a balanced overview of Oldboy by describing its negatives as well as its positives. The truth is that it’s one of those rare films in which I can find no flaws whatsoever. As far as I can tell, it comes as close to perfect as a movie can.

Oldboy poster