It’s not often I get chances like this, so I had to take it up. By the time you read this, I will have actually seen this film over 2 weeks ago (and it was released 2 weeks prior to that). Why do I bring this up? Because this is a film that doesn’t even seem to have a release date yet for America (or many countries, for that matter), yet it was released in Korea, despite it being an English film full of American and British actors. That’s because the film is directed by Joon-ho Bong, the man who gave us such Korean classics as Mother and The Host. (And one of its producers is none other than Chan-wook Park.) To add a little more to the intercultural mix, it’s based on a French graphic novel. So what’s the film about, anyway?
In the not-too-distant future, global warming has reached disastrous levels, so the government sends up this chemical into the atmosphere to counter it. Unfortunately, there’s a negative reaction and the entire planet freezes over, killing off the majority of its population. The only ones to survive are those who boarded a special train that circles the globe, taking an entire year to make a full circle. Those rich enough to buy their way on get to stay classy and pampered in the front of the train. But those who had to get on last minute for free were crammed in dirty quarters at the tail, where survival became deadly. 18 years later, the tail section is desperate and are ready for a revolution against the tyrannical front end. This revolution will be led by Curtis (Chris Evans) and his friend/partner, Edgar (Jamie Bell). Their plan is to first get to a prison car to wake up a junkie named Namgoong Minsu (Kang-ho Song)–who also wakes up his 17-year-old daughter, Yona (Ah-sung Ko)–so he can hotwire all the car gates open and get them to the front of the train where they can overthrow its leader, Wilford (Ed Harris). The film also co-stars John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Alison Pill, and Ewen Bremner.
Before I get into anything else, can I just stop and say… that is one hell of a cast. Of course everyone reading this knows who all those white people are. But if you don’t know who Kang-ho Song or Ah-sung Ko are, they were both in The Host and also played father and daughter there, too (yes, the rather attractive Ah-sung Ko was the little girl from that film… which makes me feel mildly dirty… but hey, she’s 21 now). And Kang-ho Song was also in such films as Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Lady Vengeance, Thirst, and The Good The Bad The Weird. So if you don’t know who he is yet, you just don’t watch Korean cinema.
Now as far as their acting goes… it’s actually really good. Chris Evans channels his Sunshine performance–and if you’ve seen Sunshine, you know that’s a really good thing. He’s a great lead here. Jamie Bell is good for what he has; I just wish he had more to work with for his character (I’ll get into that shortly). John Hurt is John Hurt, which means he’s awesome. And Octavia Spencer does really well in what I believe is her first major sci-fi film. She plays a desperate mother, though she’s also a strong female character, as well, and is one of the most sympathetic characters in the film. Similar to Jamie Bell, Kang-ho Song is great with what he’s given–I just wish he was given a little more. I think after Chris Evans’ character, the character you latch onto most is Ah-sung Ko’s. She just plays this interesting mixture of innocence and I’m-so-not-innocent at the same time. The one person who felt a bit odd was Tilda Swinton, who was doing this kinda goofy, more evil version of Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) in Hunger Games.
So my biggest issue with the film was that it’s incredibly plot driven to the point they almost forget about the characters. There needed to be a lot more character building in this film, especially since there are some huge moments throughout the film that should hit you much harder than they do emotionally. The reason they don’t hit is because the film doesn’t make you care about the characters. Most of them are pretty one-dimensional. Chris Evans is the most well-rounded, but his fleshing-out moment happens so late in the film that by the time he has his big moment in the climax, his backstory is so new that you didn’t have time to let it sink in and build through the film. As I mentioned earlier, Octavia Spencer is probably the most sympathetic, but she really doesn’t have any major character building moments. The actors who get the worst end of this are Jamie Bell and Kang-ho Song. I feel there needed to be a handful more introspective or building moments between Jamie Bell and Chris Evans early on to help show their relationship more strongly than it was. And Kang-ho Song is a borderline wasted opportunity for an awesome character. As he is, he’s a pretty cool antihero. And he has some great moments. But until the third act and maybe one or two scenes prior, the film treats him as if he’s not important unless he’s trying to open a gate.
According to recent news, the Weinstein’s are actually going to cut out 20 minutes of the film for its American (and Canadian/Australian/etc.) release, and I have no idea where they’re going to take it from. The film isn’t particularly graphic–especially in comparison to most Korean films–so it’s not gore they’re cutting out. The film is so plot-driven that there aren’t many scenes they can really cut without losing major events. So that only leaves those big character moments that are actually in the film that give any kind of depth to these characters. And in further research, that is exactly what they’re doing. Apparently they’re cutting out the character moments to make it more like an action film so it has more American appeal. And they’re also adding in voice over to the beginning and ending. What the heck? I seriously hope there is a Director’s Cut released of the original version on DVD/Blu-Ray, because that’s just a travesty. The character building we do get is actually very well done!
And the plot itself is actually quite good. It’s very simple, moving from one train car to the next. And there are some really good plot twists and character revelations as the film goes on (though mainly in the third act) that I didn’t see coming. Along with the story, the set design was done rather well. It was really interesting to see what each car was going to be. I know I’ve already mentioned this film/book once, but at times I was reminded a bit of Hunger Games, and how they start off in the slums and the closer they get to the head guy the more ritzy, fashionable, and clean it gets. While we’re on comparisons, there was also at least one scene that reminded me of Oldboy, particularly the hallway fight (I wonder how much Chan-wook Park as producer had influence over that).
Overall, despite the one issue I had with lack of character depth, I really liked the film. The action is done well (though there is a bit of shaky cam) and is creative at times. There’s one really long, memorable action set piece around the middle of the film that involves a lot of guys with axes (I’d actually say that’s one of the most memorable scenes in the film because of everything that happens during it). The film also has a nice aesthetic to it. And let’s not forget that pretty epic cast. I feel I’m in an awkward situation, though, as I want to recommend the film, but not if you end up having to see a butchered version. (Update: Since I wrote this, the director has come out and said the western release won’t be as massively cut as previously announced, but it will still be cut, so still… boo on them!)