Based on the 1982 French graphic novel Transperceneige, director Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer (2013) serves up a thinly-veiled slice of post-apocalyptic social commentary. After a failed attempt to combat global warming causes a new Ice Age, humanity's survivors are placed inside a massive train segmented by social classes. As the train lurches forward through the snow-covered landscape on an annual loop, it's painfully obvious that some of its passengers are luckier than others. But whether rich or poor, God-like or working-class, everyone appears to have their place...and for better or worse, the train's operation hinges solely on their carefully maintained division. Not surprisingly, the poor souls stuck in the tail section resemble prisoners of war: they're served crude blocks of gelatinous protein, forced to do manual labor, and punished for any resistance. The tail-end "leaders", for lack of a better word, are Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) and the elderly Gilliam (John Hurt), who plan to lead some of their people to the front.
Snowpiercer makes no attempt to hide that pesky social commentary below the surface, which will practically infuriate anyone who wastes time trying to dig any deeper. Instead, it often diverts our attention with a motley crew of supporting characters along the way, including the awkwardly authoritarian Mason (Tilda Swinton), security specialist Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) and his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung), yellow-clad enigma Claude (Emma Levie), a peppy schoolteacher (Alison Pill), and countless others. Some of these diversions---which border on the absurd more often than not----simultaneously attracted and alienated me during my first viewing of Snowpiercer, much like Matthew Patel's song-and-dance routine during Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The second time through, Snowpiercer's deceptively linear path---and the occasional detours it took, of course---left a more substantial impression. But I'll go firmly against the grain on one opinion, however: I'm still not sold on that classroom scene.
Despite the film's episodic structure and oddball mix of sociopolitical commentary, brutal violence, and occasional brushes with ill-timed absurdity---or, perhaps, directly because of them---Snowpiercer feels like the focused, specific product of a singular voice behind the camera. Yes, it's adapted from a French graphic novel, co-written by a Korean and American, constructed by a Czech production designer, and stars an eclectic international cast, but director Bong Joon-ho's streamlined approach to filmmaking provides the bulk of Snowpiercer's backbone. An accompanying documentary details Bong's obsessive habit of shooting exactly what he wanted to see on-screen and nothing more, effectively negating the future existence of deleted scenes, test endings, and lucrative alternate cuts.
In fact, the main reason for Snowpiercer's almost non-existent U.S. theatrical release (and, by extension, the long delay of its domestic home video debut) was a well-publicized dispute between the director and Harvey Weinstein, who insisted on a shorter main feature and the addition of bookend voice-over narratives to smooth things over for audiences. Obviously that didn't happen, and the fact that we got Snowpiercer on Blu-ray is its original form the first time around creates something of a happy ending for the director and potential fans of the film. Whether you love the finished product, hate it, or shuffle off with indifference, you've got to respect that level of dedication.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Colors? What colors? Snowpiercer is an oppressively gray film: almost every trace of vivid color has been sucked out of the picture by design...and when we finally do travel to more vivid locales, they're handled nicely with excellent, natural balance. Black levels are rock solid from start to finish, while contrast levels are strong without feeling artificially boosted. Image detail is superb, especially during close-ups, while the film's sporadic (and usually tasteful) uses of green-screen and other digital trickery are blended almost seamlessly into the live-action footage. Overall, Snowpiercer is a visually ambitious film that shines on Blu-ray, serving up a formidable atmosphere that smooths over some of its less potent elements. It's framed at 1.78:1, opened up slightly from the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
DISCLAIMER: The compressed promotional images in this review are resized do not represent this Blu-ray or its native 1080p resolution.
Snowpiercer's atmosphere extends to the audio presentation as well, and the default DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (presented in English and Korean) has no problem achieving sonic perfection. Dialogue is crisp and clear, channel separation and surround activity are potent, and the continuous rumble of the train and its Eternal Engine remind us where we are at all times. The film's sporadic action sequences are also handled nicely, and the pulse of gunfire and other weaponry is much stronger than the rather subdued hand-to-hand action. Optional subtitles are offered in English (translation only), English SDH (full subtitles, which are appreciated), and Spanish during the main feature.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
The menu interface for Snowpiercer
is basic but appropriate, offering smooth navigation and relatively quick loading time...but unfortunately, no "resume" function seems to be enabled. This two-disc package is housed in a standard dual-hubbed keepcase, along with a handsome matching slipcover (which opens to reveal an image of the train) and a promotional insert for the graphic novel. Brief rundowns of the disc contents are printed on the back cover.
One advantage of Snowpiercer
's long road to Region A is that we're treated to plenty of extras the first time around. Disc One
includes an Audio Commentary
hosted by former DVD Talk reviewer Scott Weinberg
, who's joined by five of his friends and colleagues at different points during the film. His guests include James Rocchi of MSN Movies, William Goss of The Austin Chronicle
, Drew McWeeny of Hitfix.com, Jennifer Yamato of Deadline, and Peter S. Hall of Movies.com, who are paired off with Weinberg via phone for roughly 20 minutes apiece. Technical aspects are briefly discussed, but most of the discussion is limited to cast and crew, themes and metaphors, influences, Bong's other films, and more. Though I liked the format (whether intentionally or not, it mirrored the film's "compartmentalized" atmosphere), there's an occasional lack of cohesion because the participants aren't speaking together in person. But this is still a worthwhile track, so fans will definitely want to have a listen. One disappointment: Weinberg mentions a filmmaker's commentary which is not included on this release, whether it exists on foreign releases or not.
Disc Two leads off with "Transperceneige: From the Blank Page to the Black Screen" (55 minutes), a documentary by Jesus Castro-Ortega that traces the story's history from its humble origins as a French graphic novel first published in 1982 (seen below, in English translated form). Featuring key cast and crew members including director Bong Joon-ho, as well as original Transperceneige artist and consultant Jean-Marc Rochette, this English subtitled documentary covers a fairly solid amount of ground in just under an hour, providing a clear path that, like the audio commentary, mirrors the film's linear momentum. On a related note, shorter featurettes entitled "The Birth of Snowpiercer" (15 minutes), "The Characters" (13 minutes), and "Chris Evans & Tilda Swinton on Snowpiercer" (5 minutes) offer slightly more details about specific topics through additional cast/crew input and glimpses behind the scenes. Though these short featurettes feel promotional in nature and rarely dig below the surface, they're still appreciated.
Disc Two continues with a few more interesting nuggets. A brief Animated Prologue (5 minutes), presented in "bullet-time" rendered 3-D static images with voice-over narration and sound effects, offers a set-up to the story from young Yona's perspective. "The Train Brought to Life: Behind the Scenes of a Special Screening" (8 minutes) covers the film's debut at Austin's Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, which was bookended by a special themed train ride to the outdoor screening and a short Q&A with director Bong Joon-ho. Finally, a pair of Concept Art Galleries shows us some concept art for the train and a collection of paintings by Transperceneige artist and consultant Jean-Marc Rochette.
Again, this is a fairly impressive handful of supplements, especially considering Snowpiercer's practically non-existent U.S. theatrical release. Optional English and English SDH subtitles are included for all applicable bonus features.
I liked and disliked segments of Snowpiercer for completely unexpected reasons, but the total package is certainly a worthwhile viewing experience. The film's interesting premise, striking set design, potent atmosphere, and committed performances ensure that the post-apocalyptic setting feels as real as possible, even when some of the (intentionally) goofy moments subvert the seriousness on many occasions. Director Joon-ho Bong's assured direction keeps the momentum going at a steady clip: his efficient, no-nonsense shooting style ensures that we're getting a final cut the first time through. Likewise, Anchor Bay's Blu-ray package seems to avoid the "future double dip" pattern set by most modern releases, serving up a high quality A/V presentation and a fairly satisfying collection of extras spread across two discs. So while the main feature itself may not be obvious "blind buy" material (save for die-hard fans of the director), the strength of this release should tip the scales for those on the fence. Firmly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.