Last weekend, the post-apocalyptic fable Snowpiercer opened on a handful of screens. A tightly-paced action flick in which the plot moves in quite-literally one direction, it would seem like a given for a science-fiction-heavy summer. It was certainly a hit upon its release in Korea—last summer. But after that year-long delay, Snowpiercer opened sparsely here, having gone through no small trouble to get stateside at all. Harvey Weinstein, who controlled U.S. distribution rights, fought director Bong Joon-ho for months over cuts that would supposedly make the film easier for American audiences to understand. Bong refused any cuts; this limited release is, essentially, the penalty.
That backstory would make the movie an object of interest even if it wasn’t any good. Luckily, it is. The cut of Snowpiercer that opens this weekend retains all its bleakness and strangeness, a collection of small moments that elevate the premise comfortably above its mile-high concept—courtesy of the graphic novel Le Transperceneige—and thread the movie with unrelenting tension. Given the concept, pinpointing much more of the plot would spoil, pardon the pun, a one-way trip. But their journey smartly hinges on the emotional impact of revelations more than the physical scraps that punctuate them. The casting also ranges from canny to sublime, with an ensemble that makes the most of their material. An often-underrated Chris Evans proves a grim, haunted center, his simmering resentment a match even for Tilda Swinton, who never takes prisoners when stealing scenes, and Song Kang-ho, always a magnetic presence.
Those who dig grim sci-fi concept pieces will be on familiar ground, but grounded in such great performances, and with details so hauntingly rendered, it’s clear why keeping them was so important. Snowpiercer is a compelling, unsettling thrill ride that’s well worth the wait.