After much deliberation this weekend, I finally decided on my choice for "Movie of the Week". In a showdown between a pair of esteemed genre flicks by Asian directors, Joon-ho Bong's "Snowpiercer" just barely edged out Gareth Evans' "The Raid 2". In the end, the deciding factor proved to be the unique ambition of the former (as opposed to the entertaining but familiar nature of a sequel).
That ambition comes from the gonzo sci-fi premise. The film tells of a dystopian future where an experiment to combat climate change has gone wrong and caused the world to freeze over. There is no more life on earth, except for the few on board the Snowpiercer, a train that circles the globe in perpetuity and provides a fully-functioning living environment. As with any cinematic dystopia, the arrangement isn't fair to all, as the train is divided by class. The upper class stay towards the front, while the underprivileged are relegated to the desolate tail, with no hope of advancing their status. The arrangement stays stable for the most part, until the disadvantaged decide to revolt, staging a coup d'etat of sorts to get their chance at the happiness afforded to the elite.
As the action unfolds, the incredible vision of director Joon-ho Bong is quickly realized. The tone he creates is an interesting mix of styles. Firstly, the quirky characters (Tilda Swinton's defiant Minister Mason) and unusual set details (the strange protein blocks that are used as food) provide a touch of Terry Gilliams-esque whimsy. In addition, the visceral violence and extreme levels of human depravity remind you of the director's roots in Korean cinema. On top of all this, the high quality visuals and recognizable faces give it a compelling Hollywood sheen. It all comes together to make the film constantly interesting.
The stylistic flourishes are certainly inspired but perhaps more importantly, everything's in service of a very thrilling ride. These thrills are rooted in the film's remarkable efficiency. The script sets up the film's rules succinctly without long exposition and manages to find intriguing digressions within its obstacle course trajectory. In addition, the main cast of protagonists (Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Kang-ho Song) are uniformly strong, nailing each emotional and character beat with pointed urgency to keep things moving. As a result, the film maintains a high energy that keeps you on an adrenaline rush until the poignant climax. The film's setting may be confined and claustrophobic but it definitely feels epic in every sense of the word.
In summary, there's a lot to appreciate in "Snowpiercer". Even when the tonal shifts become admittedly irksome, it still invites me to always watch, listen and ponder with keen interest. It's the rare big-budget action movie that feels truly one of a kind.