The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan



There's a rush that comes from seeing a movie that is unique and unpredictable. Maybe once or twice a year – three times, if it's an especially good year – a movie comes along that just captivates me with its originality, either in concept, storytelling style, or both. Spring Breakers, Inception, and Cloud Atlas are a few fairly recent examples. Snowpiercer, the latest from director Bong Joon-ho (Mother, The Host), is the latest. I didn't know where it was headed from one scene to the next, and I couldn't wait to find out.

The story takes place in the near future. An experiment aimed at correcting global warming has inadvertently led to disastrous consequences. The world has frozen, killing off all life. The only survivors are the people on a high-tech train, run via a perpetual motion engine, that continually spans the globe. It is not a happy place. The inventor/mastermind, Wilford (Ed Harris), is up front, followed by various people of the upper class. All the way in the back are the poor, crammed into filthy, crowded compartments where they are forced to eat disgusting “protein bars.” They include Tanya (Octavia Spencer), a mother whose five-year-old son has been snatched by Wilford's authorities for unknown reasons, and Curtis (Chris Evans), who is organizing a revolt. Initial attempts at rebellion are foiled by Wilford's lieutenant, Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton, overacting to great effect), but eventually Curtis and the others make some advances. They then team up with Namgoong (Kang-ho Song), a hardcore drug addict who designed the doors between compartments and can therefore theoretically open them. Curtis believes that if he can get to the front of the train, he can overthrow Wilford and bring about a new order.

So what is Snowpiercer, exactly? It's a science-fiction adventure, with a number of inventively-staged and exciting action sequences. It's a social satire of the class system, one that displays a biting wit. It's a political allegory that insightfully explores how oppression breeds revolt. Amazingly, it is all of these things, and it is exceptional on every count. Based on a French graphic novel entitled Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rouchette, Snowpiercer hits the sweet spot of working as entertainment while still having enough brains to keep you intellectually engaged. Every time Curtis and crew get involved in a battle, it's done with a reason behind it. They are fighting for freedom, for the right to live equally among those in the “better” sections. Instead of mindless action, you get the kind that represents an ideal, which is infinitely more thrilling.

One of the smartest things Bong Joon-ho does is to make the train a thoroughly vivid environment. It is not just a means of transportation, it's a vessel that represents class struggle. Everything that happens within it is therefore imbued with extra meaning. Each car is different, and they get nicer and more elaborate the longer Curtis goes through them and gets another step closer to being one of the “haves” rather than the “have-nots.” The setting also gives Snowpiercer a chance to engage in some visually captivating images. Because everything takes place in long, cylindrical train cars, it requires a creativity in staging, so that you feel the claustrophobia the characters are worn down by, without feeling that the film itself is getting stagnant. The director does this by generally shooting from end to end within the cars, rarely moving his cameras to the side. That generates the claustrophobia; the “theme” of each new compartment keeps everything fresh.

A stellar cast also contributes to the movie's effectiveness. Chris Evans gives an excellent performance as Curtis, a guy who turns out to be far more complicated than we initially believe. Evans brings a weary quality that is convincing. Curtis has spent seventeen years on this train, and he's sick and tired of being oppressed. As he moves forward, he learns that creating “equality” isn't as easy as it seems, and Evans makes this realization deeply affecting. Tilda Swinton is a highlight as well, turning the overly-officious Mason into a grotesque caricature. That may sound bad, but it really isn't. In Swinton's hands, Mason is the public face of the nightmare. Ed Harris, meanwhile, is as reliable as ever, bringing a necessary amount of seriousness to the role of Wilford. One of the big questions is whether Wilford is outright evil or whether his ideology is well-intentioned but distorted. Harris draws you in with that quandary.

Snowpiercer may not be an easy movie to categorize, but that's also a big part of its appeal. While the train is on a fixed track, the plot is not. New layers are continually revealed, new pieces of information unveiled. Just when you think you have a handle on its themes, wrinkles are introduced that deepen them in complicated, provocative ways. The film also contains an audacious ending that is invested with meaning. Plus, it's a ridiculous amount of fun. Snowpiercer is a hypnotic piece of work, one that will doubtlessly merit repeated viewings. It's a movie for people who love movies that play by their own rules.

( out of four)

Snowpiercer is rated R for violence, language and drug content. The running time is 2 hours and 6 minutes.

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