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Snowpiercer Blu-ray Review

Snowpiercer (2014) movie poster Snowpiercer

US Theatrical Release: June 27, 2014 / Running Time: 126 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Bong Joon Ho / Writers: Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, Jean-Marc Rochette (Le Transperceneige); Bong Joon Ho (screen story & screenplay); Kelly Masterson (screenplay)

Cast: Chris Evans (Curtis Everett), Song Kang Ho (Namgoong Minsoo), Ed Harris (Mr. Wilford), John Hurt (Mr. Gilliam), Tilda Swinton (Minister Mason), Jamie Bell (Edgar), Octavia Spencer (Tanya), Ewen Bremner (Andrew), Ko Asung (Yona), Alison Pill (Teacher), Luke Pasqualino (Grey), Vlad Ivanov (Franco the Elder), Adnan Haskovic (Franco the Younger), Emma Levie (Claude), Stephen Park (Fuyu), Clark Middleton (Painter), Marcanthonee Jon Reis (Tim), Paul Lazar (Paul), Tσmas Lemarquis (Egg-Head), Karel Veselύ (Andy), Ana Braun (Ylfa)

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Snowpiercer is one of the best-reviewed films of the year. It stars Captain America himself, Chris Evans, who headlined what was for some time the top-grossing film of 2014. Its mix of science fiction, visual effects, and action is comparable to what you'll find in most of the biggest box office draws these days.
And yet, this film sold just a little more than 500,000 tickets in North America, significantly less than half of what The Winter Soldier sold in its late night pre-opening day exhibitions alone.

How could this be? Well, Snowpiercer is distributed by The Weinstein Company, a studio that rarely achieves massive commercial success and usually only on glowing reviews, awards recognition, and enthusiastic word of mouth. Most of Weinstein's movies never expand beyond double-digit theater counts in the US and Canada. Furthermore, Snowpiercer wasn't even distributed by Weinstein proper, but by Radius-TWC, the young niche label the company generally attaches to small movies (many of them, documentaries and foreign imports) which open in theaters and On Demand the same day with minimal commercial prospects. Having done big business in many parts of the world, especially South Korea (where it was produced), Snowpiercer did not fit that model, but Radius-TWC kind of proceeded like it did.

The film opened in eight theaters, expanded to 250 in its second weekend, then to 356 in its third, before it started disappearing from the big screen. It's still playing in a handful of theaters right now, but its earnings have barely risen in the past two months. They stand at $4.6 million, a paltry sum for a roughly $40 million production with all that clout and a decent amount of international star power. Could such a fate have been avoided with more patience, better timing, or a more effective marketing strategy? It's possible, which is why it's tempting to call this one of Weinstein's bigger commercial blunders, although they've had plenty in their first nine years of self-distribution.

In "Snowpiercer", a revolution led by Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) happens upon a colorful children's classroom that fills one of the train's countless varied cars.

Adapted from the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Snowpiercer opens with audio from the present day explaining how the release of an experimental substance called CW-7, designed to curb global warming, has brought an icy extinction to life on this planet. Now in 2031, humanity has been wiped out, saved for the precious few aboard the Snowpiercer, a long train that is constantly running and circumvents the otherwise uninhabitable globe every year.

The train is starkly divided into classes. We start in the tail section, which our protagonist and hero, Curtis Everett (Evans), calls home. Crowded and dirty, this area is policed by gun-toting soldiers. Justice in this totalitarian vessel is swift and severe; a man who throws a shoe at an official has his arm forcefully held outside the train for seven minutes, after which the frozen limb is shattered off with a mallet. These lower-class commoners are regularly ordered to sit and stand. They are served gelatinous black "protein blocks", which inevitably becomes a kind of currency among them, and are clumsily condescended by Minister Mason (a boldly-fashioned Tilda Swinton).

Though he says he's not a leader, Curtis becomes just that when he heads up a revolt of tail sectioners with support from his playful right-hand man Edgar (Jamie Bell) and old, peg-legged, hook-handed Mr. Gilliam (John Hurt). Curtis and company are determined to succeed where past revolutions have failed. From a morgue-like prison, they release crack security specialist Nam (Song Kang Ho) and his teenage daughter Yona (Ah-Sung Ko). In exchange for kronole, an industrial waste inhalant they're each addicted to, the two reluctantly agree to help them break through the gates to move towards the front of the train. That is where the "Sacred Engine" is maintained by the revered Mr. Wilford (Ed Harris, adding another God figure to his resume). Control the engine, control the world.

Curtis' revolution advances to higher and higher classes, where there are windows, a greenhouse with plants and fruits, an aquarium, and a lively dance club. They discover what those protein blocks are made from. They also encounter resistance in a car full of ax-wielding masked men.

Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) uses a shoe literally and metaphorically in a clumsy tail section speech.

Snowpiercer is highly creative and exciting science fiction. It is ripe with obvious real world implications and historical allusions. Social commentary on class differences and financial inequality is impossible to miss.
And yet, the film does not preach or try to pose a solution. Like District 9, it uses this weighty, relevant content to bolster its unique and accessible sci-fi story.

Bong Joon Ho, a South Korean director who commanded some attention with his 2006 monster movie The Host (a modest limited release success in 2007) and received acclaim for his 2009 mystery Mother, imbues Snowpiercer with plenty of style. Fortunately, it is never at the expense of an involving story. The movie opens with crew credits and no cast names, which you fear may indicate an emphasis on the technical facets. Perhaps that is designed to maintain suspense regarding which characters might die (and potentially die early). Clearly, Bong, who is alone attributed with screen story and shares screenplay credit with American Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead), cares plenty about the story, which has universal themes but its own distinct rhythms.

This is a film full of ideas. Some of them are kind of out there and a bit tough to take in stride (e.g. the colorful elementary school car). Most of them are quite inspired and make us think about what it means to be alive and the beauty of things we take for granted, from food variety to solitude. Some may argue that the film's narrative is heavy-handed, but I don't agree. The type of movie that would be so easy to mishandle, Snowpiercer ends up being a delight both visually and dramatically. It's fast-moving, about as far from monotonous as a one-vehicle setting film can be, and always full of humanity. The film manages to be bloody but not extremely violent. Another filmmaker might show us that arm being shattered up close and the assorted mortal wounds inflicted in battle. Bong prefers to keep them at a distance while still letting them affect us as they should.

While there's a good chance you are as unfamiliar with The Host and Mother as I am, Bong's work has undoubtedly earned him some admirers. Proof of that is in the cast, which assembles generations of talent from all over the globe. The director rewards the cast's faith in him with juicy roles all around. Evans impresses and engages more than he has in his relatively bland signature role. The performance is enough to make you hope he wasn't serious about retiring from non-Marvel acting to direct. Swinton's hammy, unforgettable performance is another one of the movie's few questionable areas. Harris is powerful in one of those Orson Welles in The Third Man/Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now performances that much of the movie builds up to. Bong deserves credit for not turning his back on South Korea, instead using his newfound power to give two leading roles of substance to two of his stars from The Host. It isn't every day an Asian actor appears prominently in a non-martial arts movie that isn't content to play only in Asia.

Yona (Ah-Sung Ko) admires the aquarium car, one of the Snowpiercer's many splendors heretofore unknown to many passengers. Developed like a deity throughout the film, Mr. Wilford (Ed Harris) assumes a devilish presence for Curtis (Chris Evans) in the film's final act.

Snowpiercer's mid-year opening probably severely hampers its chances to be remembered in year-end lists and award shows. However, I think a film this good, distinctive, and dazzling holds an outside shot at cracking some technical categories. Last year, Weinstein's The Grandmaster opened in August, didn't do all that much business, and managed to pick up two Oscar nominations on fairly tepid reviews and editorial second-guessing. Snowpiercer, which won some accolades in Asia where it was released in 2013, could maybe sneak into Production Design and one of the Sound categories. Don't be surprised if it doesn't, though, as those fields are typically filled by blockbuster fare and movies contending for major honors.

Weinstein and home video partner Anchor Bay Entertainment give Snowpiercer another shot to find an audience with this week's loaded two-disc Blu-ray and DVD editions.

Snowpiercer Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.78:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English)
Subtitles: English, English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled in English and English SDH
Release Date: October 21, 2014
Two single-sided discs (1 BD-50 & 1 BD-25)
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Blue Keepcase in Embossed Book-Like Cardboard Slipcover
Also available as 2-Disc DVD ($24.98 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Snowpiercer is one of the increasingly rare genre films to occupy the more narrow of the two prevailing aspect ratios. The Blu-ray's 1.78:1 widescreen presentation is perfect, showcasing great detail and an always sharp and spotless element. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack is somehow even better, making terrific use of the full soundfield throughout. It's engaging material you could definitely use as home theater demo material that for once takes advantage of your television's full resolution. The film's infrequent but important foreign dialogue is translated by the default player-generated subtitle stream.

The hour-long documentary "Transperceneige: From the Blank Page to the Black Screen" shows director Bong Joon Ho meeting with the authors, who are the primary focus. Bong Joon Ho directs three of his most accomplished actors in "The Birth of 'Snowpiercer.'"

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Most of Snowpiercer's bonus features are relegated to Disc 2. The one exception is an audio commentary by six online film critics. Twitterer Scott Weinberg hosts the track and calls up his friends one at a time for a nerdy/scholarly admiration of the film and its cast,
comparisons to many films they've seen and you haven't, and ruminations on the film's American reception and what it says about the evolution of theatrical and VOD. The phone audio isn't always easy to listen to and there's a little bit of self-importance as they talk Twitter reactions and seeing movies early, but it's an unusual and worthwhile commentary, which is good because the filmmaker commentary Weinberg indicates will be here is not.

Disc 2's all-HD extras begin with "Transperceneige: From the Blank Page to the Black Screen" (54:27). This thorough, predominantly French language (English-subtitled) making-of documentary directed by Jesus Castro-Ortega starts with the graphic novel, interviewing the authors, whom it stays with as it moves through the filming of the adaptation, with footage spanning from 1980s archival content to 2006 pre-production to production, post-production, and the first screenings. There is a wealth of good material presented in an agreeable way.

"The Birth of Snowpiercer" (15:09) is a more concise and conventional making-of featurette, which gives us information on the film and behind-the-scenes looks at its making.

This animated prologue fleshes out the circumstances of Earth's apocalypse. Looking rather different out of make-up, Tilda Swinton explains the desire to work with Bong Joon Ho that prompted him to make over a character for her.

The somewhat redundant "The Characters" (13:08) lets actors and Bong describe the film's leading characters, which are complemented by more behind-the-scenes clips.

An animated prologue (4:31) gives us a little more information on the film-opening apocalypse in surprisingly presentable (if not so animate) CGI, with Korean narration by Yona.

"Chris Evans & Tilda Swinton on Snowpiercer" (4:40) lives up to its title with separate remarks from perhaps the two stars most famous in the eyes of modern moviegoers.

Concept art envisions the dreary tail section. Nam and Curtis make their way through the rave car on the Blu-ray's menu.

"The Train Brought to Life: Behind the Scenes of a Special Screening" (8:06) shows us glimpses of the promotional train

the Alamo Drafthouse and Radius put together in June filled with objects, food, and decor inspired by the film. Only a little time is spent on that, though, with the rest going to a good interview of Bong about the film viewing experiences of his life.

Finally, two Concept Art Galleries give us 15 images of train designs and 23 of the Painter's sketches, actually the work of Le Transperceneige artist Jean-Marc Rochette.

Each disc's main menu runs a scored montage of clips within a hatch. As usual for Weinstein/Anchor Bay Blu-rays, the discs aren't authored to support bookmarks or resume unfinished playback. Unusually, no trailers of any kind play at insertion of either disc. More typical and disappointing is the absence of Snowpiercer's own trailer.

In an Anchor Bay Blu-ray rarity, Snowpiercer's ordinary keepcase is topped by an embossed cardboard slipcover whose front opens like a book (though its adhesive glob doesn't do a great job of re-closing) to display appealing concept art. Joining the two creatively labeled discs, the lone insert advertises the Snowpiercer graphic novels, which means that Snowpiercer is the rare new movie not treated to a digital copy alongside its Blu-ray.

Nam (Song Kang Ho) reluctantly agrees to open gates for the revolution in exchange for kronole, his drug of choice. Curtis (Chris Evans) leads the charge against a car full of masked ax men.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

I'm happy to agree with my fellow critics that Snowpiercer is one of the richest films of 2014 so far. Visually exciting, conceptually abundant, and dramatically fulfilling, this is creative sci-fi cinema done right that should appeal to an American audience much larger than the one that saw it in theaters.

The Blu-ray provides a dynamite feature presentation, nice packaging, and a pretty solid four hours of extras. It is a set that's easy to recommend to just about anyone of age.

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Related Reviews:
Chris Evans: Sunshine • Push • Captain America: The Winter Soldier • Fantastic Four • Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Tilda Swinton: The Grand Budapest Hotel • Only Lovers Left Alive • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ed Harris: Pain & Gain • Gone Baby Gone • The Firm • National Treasure: Book of Secrets
Jamie Bell: Jumper • The Adventures of Tintin | John Hurt: Jayne Mansfield's Car • Heaven's Gate
Octavia Spencer: The Help • Fruitvale Station • Paradise | Ewen Bremner: Jack the Giant Slayer
Blindness • Drive • Gravity • Noah • District 9 • Elysium • City of Ember • Renaissance • The Road
New: Godzilla • Edge of Tomorrow • Ilo Ilo

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Reviewed October 22, 2014.



Text copyright 2014 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2014 Radius-TWC, The Weinstein Company, CJ Entertainment, Moho Film, OPUS Pictures,
Anchor Bay Entertainment, and The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.