Plot: What’s it about?
About seven years ago I was sent a movie called The Host. I had no idea what to expect and, truthfully, I’ve never really been a fan of foreign cinema. I know, I know, I need to expand my horizons – but hey, I’m being honest here. As it turns out, I actually loved the film and have watched it about once a year since. For those who aren’t familiar with it, it’s the story of a monster that emerges from a river that terrorizes a town, but focuses on a family affected by one of its kidnapped victims. A monster movie with heart? Yes. Director Joon-ho Bong then went onto direct a film which I’ve yet to see called Mother in 2009. However it’s with Snowpiercer that he once again caught my eye. Released last year and with a decidedly American’ish cast (with a few Brits thrown in for good measure), the film has been critically-praised. Working with Harvey Weinstein, the film was set for U.S. release, though Weinstein wanted to trim 20 minutes off of it. Joon-ho Bong was originally ok with this, but then changed his mind. The last year has seen the director battle with Weinstein and Weinstein eventually giving in. Never let it be said that there’s no shortage of drama in the film industry.
Set in the very near future, the Earth is suffering from the effects of global warming. And, in an effort to avert the rising temperatures, the countries of the planet decide to launch a chemical into the atmosphere that will hopefully counter this affect. It works. Too well. The result sends the Earth into what can only be described as another Ice Age. Life begins to die off and the only salvation for the human race is a huge train – the Snowpiercer. Flash forward seventeen years and those at the back of the train are sick and tired of the subhuman conditions in which they live. Curtis (Chris Evans, almost unrecognizable) is set to lead the latest in a series of charges against the powers that be. Gilliam (John Hurt) suggests that Namgoong (Kang-ho Song), who was placed in cryogenic sleep, has the capacity to help override the system of locked doors that separate the front from the back. The armed guards are overrun and Curtis, along with a party than includes Edgar (Jamie Bell), Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and Namgoong’s daughter Yona (An-sung Ko) continue forward to the head of the train.
Oddly enough, I’d had this movie in queue via On Demand several months back. I don’t know why I didn’t choose to watch it, but for whatever reason I didn’t. But now that I’ve seen it, twice, I have to say that it’s yet another that I’ll probably view at least once a year. I’m becoming more and more of a fan of Joon-ho Bong with each passing day and Snowpiercer might just be the jewel in his crown. The origin of the story is from the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, something that Joon-ho Bong had seen and read years ago, but the film never came to fruition until a couple of years ago. Yes, this is a bit more avant garde in the casting department, but don’t let the caucasian faces dictate your decision – this is a very Korean film. I’m happy to see that a big star like Chris Evans take this sort of chance and with two Academy Award winners in the mix (Tilda Swinton and Octavia Spencer), there’s no shortage of talent. Of course, this film isn’t for everyone, but I’d wager that anyone who is a fan of Korean cinema has either already seen this or at the very least, heard of it. Highly recommended.
Video: How’s it look?
Presented in a 1.78:1 AVC HD transfer, Snowpiercer is a very dark film in almost every regard. There are a few sequences in which the color really dominates (a school classroom, a sauna and a sushi bar come to mind), but this is about as dark a film as I’ve seen recently. With that in mind, black levels and contrast play a very important part in the overall look and feel of the movie. The dark shadows under the eyes, the negative space of the background and so on. Detail, of course, is top notch and we can really get a sense of how intricate some of these sets were. In one of the included featurettes, Joon-ho Bong is interviewed in regard to setting up each individual car for with regard to its look and feel. The exterior shots contrast with the snow and ice giving a very expansive and vast architecture to the closed quarters of the train. At any rate, this is a fine-looking transfer, regardless of the (lack of) color, and viewers should be more that satisfied with the result.
Audio: How’s it sound?
The DTS HD Master Audio track is on full display here and what really surprised me was how active the surrounds were. The film takes place entirely on a train and, as we all know, there’s always going to be a sense of movement with the literal loco-motion in the background. Vocals are rich and crisp and lack any distortion. The front stage takes the burden of most of the action, though there are several fight scenes as well as a plethora of gunfire that get things heated up. I don’t want to give away the ending, but let’s just say that the LFE do become heavily involved as well. This isn’t the best track out there, but it’s a very active mix with a very odd soundtrack (in a good way).
Supplements: What are the extras?
Given the literal battle that it took to get the film to the United States, this two disc set is packed with supplements. The first disc contains the film itself along with an audio commentary, while the second disc contains the remainder of the supplements.
- Audio Commentary – This is actually a Critics’ Commentary and is hosted by Scott Weinberg as well as a host of other critics. To say that they “phoned it in” is an understatement as Weinberg literally calls them and gets their input on the movie. It’s a unique approach to a commentary track, I have to admit, and Weinberg and company are certainly fans. It’s a good track and one that fans will enjoy.
- Transperceneige: From the Blank Page to the Black Screen – A Documentary by Jesus Castro-Ortega – This is presented in French with English subtitles and gives us a look at the origins of the story, which originally appeared in a French comic book. Interviews with the screenwriter (archived footage, as he’s now deceased) as well as the illustrator are shown, giving us a bit of insight into the project.
- The Birth of Snowpiercer – Director Joon-ho Bong is interviewed and he reveals his inspiration for the story (he’d seen and read the comic in a store years earlier) as well as some of the technical challenges of making each of the cars of the train, the production design as a whole and apapting the story to the screen.
- The Characters – The major players of the film are profiled here: Curtis (Chris Evans), Gilliam (John Hurt), Edgar (Jamie Bell), Tanya (Octavia Spencer), Andrew (Ewen Bremner), Nam Koong Min Soo (Song Kang-Ho), Yona (Ko Asung), Mason (Tilda Swinton) and finally Wilford. Each has a few scenes from the film as well as some behind the scenes footage as to their character’s motivations and so forth.
- Animated Prologue – Narrated by Yona, this is a brief history of life before the Earth became frozen, and how the people reacted to the change. We learn of the Snowpiercer and the riots that ensued to get aboard. Shown in an animated state, it’s a pretty interesting piece.
- Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton on Snowpiercer – As the title suggests, it’s two of the main characters: Curtis (Evans) and Mason (Swinton) as they describe the film, its message and a brief synopsis of the film itself.
- The Train Brought to Life: Behind the Scenes of a Special Screening – In June 2014, Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas in partnership with RADiUS (the distributor of the film in the U.S.) put together this event. A train with some references to the film (disco-styled club car, sushi, protein blocks, etc.) traveled en route to San Antonio to watch a special screening of the film. We get an interview with Bong Joon-Ho at the event as well.
- Concept Art Galleries
- Train Concepts – This begins with “Explore the world of the Snowpiercer in these stunning concept images of the interiors and exteriors of the 1,000 car long train.” I have no idea if that’s valid or not and the exact number or cars wasn’t disclosed in the movie, but I found this section interesting to see some of the various ideas depicted.
Rochette Paintings – This is a section of sketches taken from the film by “The Painter (Clark Middleton)” but are actually the work of jean-Marc Rochette, the original artist of the graphic novel Le Transperceneige. Some of the art is displayed in this section.