“Snowpiercer” may be the oddest film of the year so far. The set up sounds like a standard dystopian world scenario… to a point.
Set just seventeen years from today, the movie, written and directed by Joon-ho Bong, takes place in a dystopian world where global warming has turned the planet into one giant snowball.
So far this could be “The Day After Tomorrow,” or “The Colony” or any number of icy thrillers set in a sub zero world.
All of humanity now lives on a train, owned and operated by a mysterious industrialist named Wilford, hurtling through what’s left of ice-covered planet. It’s an ecosystem with its own class system. In the front of the locomotive people live a life of luxury, dining on sushi, partying in nightclubs, tending orchids in greenhouses, while the folks in the back, “the freeloaders” are forced to live in atrocious conditions. Imagine the steerage section in “Titanic” only WAY worse.
Crammed in like sardines these “tail section” passengers are treated like prisoners, forced to eat “protean bars” of dubious quality and tortured for the slightest of infractions. “Know your place,” commands Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton). “Accept your place.”
It’s an atmosphere ripe for revolution, but can ringleaders Curtis (Chris Evans), Gilliam (John Hurt) and right hand man Edgar (Jamie Bell) fight their way through the train (and all of the story’s allegories) to the front and freedom?
Based on the French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige,” “Snowpiercer” is the nerviest actioner to come along in a season crowded with movies that go crash, boom, bang. It’s an environmental thriller—if you haven’t already seen Bong’s “The Host” do so now!—that is unapologetically weird, keeping the audience off balance for the entirety of its two-hour running time.
Tilda Swinton as the train’s Iron Lady, the minister of discipline, plays like a cross between a prison guard, Benny Hill and Margaret Thatcher. It’s a loopy performance that embraces and embodies the movie’s weird spirit.
In the world Bong creates surprises are around every corner, characters come and go, but it never feels odd for odd’s sake. The story rips along like a rocket (or thousand car train, if you like), sometimes in several directions at once, but Bong controls the chaos, keeping the story plausible (OK, plausible-ish) and above all, entertaining.
Canadians who were still digging themselves out of winter’s bounty in late April might feel a bit better after seeing “The Colony,” a new sci fi thriller starring Laurence Fishburne, Kevin Zegers and Bill Paxton. “The truth is,” we’re told by way of narration, “one day it started to snow and it never stopped.”
The movie takes place in a modern ice age. Survivors found refuge from the ice and snow far underground in places like Colony 7, a community run with an iron fist by former military man Briggs (Fishburne). The colony is divided along red / blue state lines—the liberal approach to governing from Briggs, versus a more practical reality espoused by Mason (Paxton), a gun touting enforcer whose catchphrase is, “We need to be tougher!”
The underground ecosystem is fragile at best. “It’s not the cold we need to worry about, it’s each other,” says Sam (Zegers).
An uneasy truce between Briggs and Mason holds until a routine call to Colony 5 goes unanswered. Briggs takes a two-man team—Sam and Graydon (Atticus Dean Mitchell)—to truck across the blustery tundra to investigate. While they’re gone things at Colony 7 go all “Lord of the Flies,” but it’s an even worse situation at Colony 5.
“The Colony” makes good use of the situation to build atmosphere and tension by using the icy outside and the claustrophobic interiors (it was shot at the decommissioned North American Aerospace Defense Command base in North Bay, Ontario) to good advantage. Shadows and creepy sounds stand-in for elaborate special effects, but when the going gets bloody old school nasty action effects—like a bisected bad guy skull—are effective and cringe inducing.
On the downside “The Colony” has many of the standard plot devices used in sci fi thrillers— who doesn’t see the sacrifice of the metaphorical red shirt coming?—and the ultimate survivors just happen to be the good-looking ones who escape to Adam and Eve it up elsewhere. But it makes up for its deficiencies with some excellently feral cannibals and an ending that while hopeful, is still bleaker and cooler than we might expect if this was a big Hollywood movie.
The movie takes place in a modern ice age. Survivors found refuge from the ice and snow far underground in places like Colony 7, a community run with an iron fist by former military man Briggs (Laurence Fishburne). The underground ecosystem is fragile at best. “It’s not the cold we need to worry about, it’s each other,” says Sam (Kevin Zegers). An uneasy peace holds until a routine call to Colony 5 goes unanswered. As Briggs and a rescue team truck across the blustery tundra to investigate, things at Colony 7 go all Lord of the Flies. Unfortunately it’s an even worse situation at Colony 5.
• Richard: 3/5
• Mark: 2/5
Richard: Mark, I thought The Colony made good use of the situation to build atmosphere and tension. The icy outside and claustrophobic interiors (it was shot at the decommissioned North American Aerospace Defense Command base in North Bay, Ont.) do the trick, and keep you uncomfortable throughout. Shadows and creepy sounds stand-in for elaborate special effects, but when the going gets bloody, old school nasty action effects — like a bisected bad guy skull — are effective and cringe inducing. Were you hot or cold on it?
Mark: Somewhere between tepid and lukewarm, Richard. Although there’s nothing wrong with this movie, there’s not much that is original or memorable. It’s a little bit zombie, a little bit aliens, a little bit haunted house. The atmosphere and tension are well done, but that isn’t enough. The real mystery is how they got Laurence Fishburne to appear in what feels like a superior direct-to-video release.
RC: I hear you. On the downside The Colony has many of the standard plot devices used in sci-fi thrillers — who doesn’t see the sacrifice of the metaphorical red shirt coming? — and the ultimate survivors just happen to be the good-looking ones who escape to Adam and Eve it up elsewhere. But it makes up for its deficiencies with some excellently feral cannibals and an ending that, while hopeful, is still bleaker and cooler than we might expect if this was a big Hollywood movie.
MB: I didn’t find the ending bleak at all. What I did find bleak was casting Bill Paxton and giving him a one dimensional papier mâché role. Mind you, none of the characters were particularly vivid.
RC: Bill Paxton has been in WAY worse movies than this. I kind of liked the simplicity of the whole thing. Reminded me of an old school action movie that stereotypes as a kind of shorthand to let the audience know what to expect. It’s not the characters that are interesting — they’re the standard hero, anti-hero types — it’s their actions. This movie doesn’t reinvent the wheel by any means, but the journey the characters went on entertained me. Besides, any movie featuring feral cannibals is OK in my books.
MB: Hey, I like a feral cannibal as much as the next guy; I mean, it’s not like I’m a vegan. I was modestly entertained by the movie but I thought it could have been better with a few more rewrites. I will say this, though: North Bay has never looked better.