Sometimes having the spectacle of a blockbuster is nice, but it is always an accomplishment when a director can bring a humanity to the characters that are posed to be larger than life with the giant action pieces and large scale mayhem they have to coordinate through to achieve their goal. But sometimes, a director can scale it down and make the characters more human, relatable, and the overall goal is something that seems much simpler or achievable than saving the world, because in this case, the most important world is much smaller.
Bong Joon-Ho does exactly this with Snowpiercer, a film that has the scale and action much like any of the films that graced the big screen during the summer, but whittles down the story to something more human with a goal that seems more achievable.
Snowpiercer stars Captain America himself, Chris Evans, as Curtis. Curtis is like the hundreds of other passengers on the Snowpiercer train, he is in the back end of a train that is carrying the last glimpses of society after an apocalypse took out most of civilizations due to a second Ice Age with only the people aboard this super-train able to survive.
The train goes along a track that circles the globe, and the film picks up just before New Year’s. It is separated by class with the higher class members near the head of the train with the mysterious head of the engine, Wilford (Ed Harris), who designed the mega-steam engine. Curtis leads the back of the train, or the stragglers who barely made it on and are now the runt of the entire engine.
But being fed “protein bars” and having their children taken away to the front of the train grows tiresome on the people of the back and they decide to revolt. Following Curtis are Gilliam (John Hurt), Edgar (Jamie Bell), Tanya (Octavia Spencer), and Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song), a junkie who knows how to wire the doors to open. The back passengers charge to the front and capture one of its chief members, Mason (Tilda Swinton), to lead the way.
There is much social commentary in Snowpiercer that more viewings would probably open up more, but what immediately meets the eye is Joon-Ho’s knack for pacing the action and disposition much better than most blockbuster directors. He gives an action scene that could rival Godzilla or Transformers, but follows it with a moment between Curtis and Tanya or Curtis and Mason that feels like most arthouse or independent films.
This care to make sure the characters move along with the train is what makes Snowpiercer both like a blockbuster, but also different. It moves its plot along with the characters, and not the opposite, which is something that plagues most big budget Hollywood films. It also isn’t afraid to take some of the major players out, and much like last year’s Pacific Rim, it isn’t in the business of creating a universe, but hurling you into a world and letting you know the characters but also unafraid of taking them away.
Chris Evans almost plays like a more humanized version of Steve Rogers, who is actually the most relatable of The Avengers, but here he has a conscious that drives his actions and a past that makes his hands also dirty.
Snowpiercer is the rare “smart” blockbuster that knows story is important and uses that to drive the momentum and action. The action scenes are gorgeous, with a stunningly lit fight scene taking place in a dark compartment. Joon-Ho has crafted one of the year’s better films and one that will most likely go unnoticed, but will still be underrated.