LAFF 2014 Opening Night: Snowpiercer
The 20th Los Angeles Film Festival has begun! Despite its location in the heart of the film industry in downtown Los Angeles, and the now 20 years it has under its belt, the LA Film Fest hasn’t yet joined the ranks of Sundance, Cannes, and Toronto. But this year’s offerings prove the LA Film Festival can hold it’s own with 35 premieres, 23 of those World Premieres. Put on by Film Independent, who also stage the annual Independent Spirit Awards, the film festival has a distinct indie feel, and first time and emerging artists are given deserved exposure. The festival kicked off with the North American premiere of Joon-Ho Bong’s dystopian flick, Snowpiercer. Despite its rocky entry and noted squabbles over editing for the North American release, the film is here and it’s magnificent.
Set in 2031, the future of the world is cold and bleak. Literally. The world has been frozen over when an attempt to counter global warming backfired and the world is now a snow-covered tundra. The last few survivors live aboard the Snow Piercer, a train that travels along a worldwide track at breakneck speeds powered by a perpetual-motion engine. Over the past 17 years that the train has traveled on its endless loop, a class system has emerged. Those up front near the engine live in luxury, those at the tail live in destitution. Led by elderly Gilliam (John Hurt), a revolution begins to form and at its forefront is Curtis (Chris Evans playing a decidedly darker hero than the recent Captain America), along with his doting friend Edgar (Jamie Bell). They’ve been receiving messages from someone at the front, encouraging their revolution. After several of their children are taken and yet another innocent man is punished, they decide the time has come to fight back. Their first mission: rescuing an ex-security man from the jail section, Namgoong Minsu (Kang-ho Song), who can open the gates as they make their way to the front of the train.
The film pays sincere homage to its comic roots. Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, many of the film’s sequences play out in well formed sequences that could easily have been taken directly from frames on the novel’s pages. The exaggerated characters feel the most cartoonish at times, but always to excellent effect, the standout character easily being Tilda Swinton’s Minister Mason, a first class train citizen in charge of representing the almighty Wilford, he who built the train and runs its engine. Mason, with her large lipstick stained teeth, school-girl bob, and her stylized Yorkshire accent is excellent material for Swinton’s skills.
The film is well paced, fleshing out its characters as they level-up to each new section of the train. And the train! An ingenius setting for a revolution, each section narrow and yet wholly original in its purpose. Food manufacturing. Water source. Sushi bar. Sauna. School room. Night club. Each of them bringing some new insight into the train’s hierarchy, and each building to what awaits beyond the final gate: the engine room. Art Director Stefan Kovacik continually impresses with each subsequent scene.
The end threatens to weigh the film down. While Chris Evans easily impresses wielding an axe, shooting a gun, and looks damn good with bruises and blood covering him for most of the film, his wide-eyed wonder during the film’s complicated ending is entirely out of character for the action-oriented Curtis. The final 20 minutes are easily where the Weinsteins could have insisted on some editing and the film would have been all the better for it. But as drawn out and self aware as it is, each revelatory moment in the ending adds to the epic feel of the film and Ed Harris’s portrayal of the enigmatic Wilford, while somewhat expected, is still worth the film’s build.
By far the best sci-fi film I’ve seen yet this year, and proof that international films make for more interesting dynamics, Snowpiercer is easily the original action film a summer full of big budget explosions needs.