The brutal and visionary South Korean science fiction thriller Snowpiercer made a splash a few weeks back when it finally got a wide release in U.S. theaters after an extended tussle with distributor Harvey Weinstein. That dispute almost kept it out of theaters here.
Details are too complicated to go into, but the upshot is that Snowpiercer is now available via video on demand at your friendly neighborhood cable provider or online retailer. If you didn’t catch it in the theater, I highly recommend it for a movie night at home. It’ll mess you up. But, you know, in a good way.
Best approached as a sort of wigged-out allegory, the film stars Chris “Captain America” Evans and an international cast that includes Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer and Korean headliners Song Kang-ho and Ko Asung.
It’s the year 2031, and the world has been plunged into a lethal ice age, thanks to some ill-advised atmospheric processing. The film’s first grim joke is that mankind froze itself trying to compensate for global warming. The world’s last survivors, human and animal, live aboard the massive bullet train Snowpiercer, which ceaselessly circles the planet, thanks to a futuristic perpetual motion engine and a dozen other mad-scientist conceits. It’s the film’s second grim joke that mankind’s Ark is a train.
Our hero Curtis Everett (Evans) leads a rebellion from the train’s rear cars—where mankind’s dregs are kept prisoner—to the front cars, where the elite meet. The film is structured as an old-fashioned A-to-B quest, with the rebels fighting their way forward to the train’s engine and its mysterious engineer.
The form of the story may be old school, but everything else is cutting-edge sci-fi weirdness. Director Bong Joon-ho conjures startling, hallucinatory images within the train, including an impossible aquarium, a drug-fueled rave and a deeply disturbing kitchen car. You may spot visual echoes of Blade Runner, Brazil and even The Shining, but the film has a nightmare aesthetic all its own.
It’s class warfare made hellishly literal, and the film’s heavy gore factor might be a legitimate concern for the squeamish. (This isn’t a family-night movie.) But the audacious storytelling is something to savor. We get plenty of big-budget, Hollywood-crafted, sci-fi adventures each summer, but few leave a lasting impression. Snowpiercer is a jolt of adrenalin. We’re reminded: “Oh, yeah, that’s what great science fiction movies can achieve.”
Extras: As an early-release VOD title, the version of Snowpiercer you get online or on cable is the same as you get in theaters. If the typical distribution patterns hold, we’ll get a DVD/Blu-ray release in a few months with the usual suite of bonus materials.
Also new this week:
- Director Jim Jarmusch takes a stab at the modern vampire romance with the hipster fable Only Lovers Left Alive, also starring Tilda Swinton and John Hurt. The cast also includes Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska.
- Tom Hardy headlines the British drama Locke, which manages to be dramatic and suspenseful despite almost everything taking place with Hardy inside a car alone. How’d they do that? Find out with the behind-the-scenes doc and director commentary track on the DVD and Blu-ray editions.
- HBO’s excellent and addictive Prohibition-era crime drama continues with Boardwalk Empire: Season 4. The fifth and final season debuts in September, so now’s the time to get your binge-watching on.