BERLIN, Germany — After more than six months of limbo and the threat of Harvey Weinstein cutting out 20 minutes of footage, the best action movie of the year is officially (but barely) going to get a release in the United States. Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, a ferociously entertaining thrill ride that’s equal parts revolutionary sci-fi manifesto and pulse-pounding futuristic nail-biter, has been busting box office records in South Korea ever since opening last summer ($60 million and counting) but was basically MIA on the international festival circuit until now. The Berlinale has finally allowed North American festgoers their first glimpse of the film.
And it’s a dark, nasty, mesmerizing work. Based on French graphic novel Le Transperceneige and starring Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Allison Pill and John Hurt, the mostly-English-language-but-still-polyglot ensemble depicts a dystopian future set in 2031. Nearly all of humanity has been wiped out by a freak chemically-induced weather freeze that was intended to stop global warming but instead turned the entire world into a subzero biome. The only survivors are condemned to live out their lives—and continue civilization—on an enormous train with a self-generating energy supply that was built pre-storm by an eccentric genius billionaire to circumnavigate the earth.
And 18 years after the meteorological holocaust, the world’s population is still severely subdivided into the haves and have-nots—first-class passengers eat sushi and dance at raves while the grimy underclass suck down gelatinous ochre protein bars in their barracks. The elite sing songs revering “the sacred engine,” while lower-class scamps are commandeered to become literal cogs in the machine. Call it “a railway Hunger Games,” or, better still, “the 99% on steel wheels.”
“It’s a masterpiece,” said Swinton, on jury duty here at the Berlinale and tub-thumping for Snowpiercer every chance she gets. She and the director have been pushing hard to keep the movie intact, especially as the international box office continues to validate their view. So the Weinstein itch to cleave off a chunk of the picture seems odd—especially when the running time is a brisk two hours and its white-knuckle pacing is hardly glacial.
The distributor reportedly wanted to cut out Octavia Spencer and Jamie Bell to streamline the narrative (despite their function as the film’s emotional linchpins), and add voiceover at the beginning and end to spoon-feed plot points. Even more troubling is that Weinstein controls the film’s English-speaking territories (including the UK and Australia), with the stipulation that the film cannot open in those markets before its U.S. run. So the American hold-up has had repercussions beyond its borders.
One other possibility is Weinstein’s change-of-heart concerning gun violence, which he doesn’t want to glorify in cinemas. And although no one has suggested that the violence in Snowpiercer should be tempered, there’s no denying that the film revels in almost baroque stagings of butchery both with and without firearms.
But last week’s agreement seems to finally allow for Snowpiercer’s American debut in its full original version, despite mention of a screen count—worst case scenario being a modest release in a few major cities and that’s it. Speaking via Skype after its first screening in Berlin, Bong was cautiously optimistic about the impending U.S. run. “It’s been a long and winding road to get here,” he said. “But until it’s all made official, it’s better to just keep my fingers crossed. So let’s all keep our fingers crossed.”