When it comes to bad movies, critics have a pretty easy job. We can point to all the things that don't work and hopefully find things to say about the flaws that are more than a bunch of cheap jokes designed to make the writer seem superior. Even when I'm writing about Transformers: Age of Extinction or being a complete asshole, I make it a point to take a movie at the level on which it's intended and determine if its succeeds or fails at being what it tries to be. I don't enjoy being negative -- I would always rather like a movie than not like it. It just seems like the bad movies are easier to write about.
A truly great movie like Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer presents a real challenge. It is a brilliant, visionary film, full of bold ideas, strong and well-drawn characters, kinetic action and layered, nuanced storytelling. It is, in short, a masterpiece. But a proper review must be more than just the writer gushing about all the parts he or she likes, right? Even if it isn't, I wouldn't want to publish such a list, as it would spoil too many things about the movie. More and more, I'm encouraging readers to go into great (even good) movies totally cold -- no trailers, no news items, not even any reviews like this one. If you plan to heed this advice, you need only know this about Snowpiercer: it is a brilliant piece of filmmaking and one of the best science fiction films of the last decade. It might even be one of the best films period. This is going to be an all-timer.
It's 2031. The poor and downtrodden passengers relegated to the train's tail section are planning a revolution led by Curtis (Chris Evans). They need the assistance of Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho, a regular of Bong Joon-ho's films), a security expert who has succumbed to drug addiction.
And that's all I want to say. It's all you need to know, really. Sure, it skips a few of the characters, like the cartoonish Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) or Gilliam (John Hurt), who is something of a mentor to Curtis and whose name is not an accident. And it skips talking about a lot of the overt political subtext; the "haves" of the remaining population live in luxury at the front of the train while the poor "have-nots" are crammed into the back, dirty, overcrowded and forced to subsist only on gelatinous "protein bars." The allegory of Snowpiercer is not subtle, but the conclusions at which it ultimately arrives are not exactly what you would expect.
Stoker) and Kim Jee-woon (The Last Stand). I liked both Stoker and The Last Stand, but both films felt like slightly watered-down versions of their Korean work. Compromises were made. That's not the case with Snowpiercer, which is as bold and visionary as anything Bong has done, if not more so. This is my favorite film of his (though I still have not seen Memories of Murder [I KNOW]), which is impressive considering how much I like The Host. One of the great things about Bong (and several of his South Korean contemporaries, not to make a generalization) is that he doesn't adhere to storytelling convention -- his movies have the ability to surprise us in an era (era) when most Hollywood movies don't. It's a wonderful thing to not know exactly where a filmmaker is taking you but to be able to trust that it is somewhere beautiful and worthwhile.
A few words about Chris Evans, who between this and Captain America: The Winter Soldier is having as good a year as an actor might hope. I wrote Evans off in his early days as an actor, back when he was playing generic teen movie guy in Not Another Teen Movie and The Perfect Score (though a rewatch of NATM reminded me that he gave a much better comic performance than I first gave him credit for). It was his performance in the underrated Cellular that first made me take serious notice of him as an actor, and I've been a fan ever since. Watching him become a kickass supporting actor in movies both bad (The Losers) and great (Sushine) has been rewarding, though not nearly as much as seeing him come into his own as a leading man in the Captain America films and walk away with The Avengers, one of the most successful movies of all time. His work in Snowpiercer is among the best he's ever done, affording him no opportunity to fall back on his devilish sense of humor or cocksure attitude but being no weaker for it. Curtis is grim and determined, but there is more to him than that. Evans is rock solid in every aspect of the character, leading with the strength of an action hero but hinting at the darkness underneath. He's so good.
Like I said, the truly great movies can be hard to write about. There are only so many ways to say "This is brilliant and I love it." If you have any opportunity to see Snowpiercer -- particularly in a movie theater -- you must make it happen. The summer movie season is packed with genre films that typically strive for little more than pop spectacle. Here is a genre film that transcends the genre. It is true art -- masterfully told science fiction destined to join the ranks of Blade Runner and Brazil. Movies like this come around only so often. They are like gifts. Snowpiercer is a gift.
See it now. Be on the right side of history.