Director Bong-joon Ho’s (The Host) 2014 dystopian sci-fi fable Snowpiecer plays as the sort of socio-political manifesto that many genre films strive towards but rarely achieve. Like the angry sci-fi films of the 60s-70s counter-culture boom it is so very much rooted in the era it was conceived and produced. Perhaps in the future, viewers revisiting the film may look back and get a feel for the issues of our time and the attitude towards them. Beyond that the film also tells an exciting, action-packed story with confidence and deft polish.
The premise is that in the future the Earth is reduced to an icy sub-zero wasteland; with the surviving populace barricading themselves in a perpetually mobile colony aboard a high-tech train “Snowpiercer” where they are divided by class & social status. Snowpiercer never needs to stop and consistently circumvents the globe and within its confines lays an advanced closed ecosystem that generates all its needs; food, water and goods. The last bastion is perfectly calibrated, however to those reduced to living in the back of the train, it is an Orwellian nightmare.
Snowpiercer plays as an unapologetic cry for rebellion against general systems of oppression, a recurring theme that has been seen in many modern genre films. A whole world is built in the film and as per the allegorical structure of the film the issues and inequality on display mirrors our own world. The film could have been content to simply exist as a metaphor for the poverty gap in the US and other 1st-world nations but is instead commenting about the whole world: inequality that is plaguing a humanity that allows the imposition of systemized control from an “elite” to dictate the populace well- being. Even still the film opts for nuance beyond the simple class disparity conflict. The train is a closed system, but beyond that it stands as an allegory for societal boundaries. Everyone have their own place assigned to them.
Everything within the train is in part participating in the perpetuation of its existence including the actions of those inside: it’s like an organism that is consistently moving through its lifecycle. The train and its engine have been transformed beyond a means for the people to live, but as an ideal to worship. “The Engine” is a metaphor for capitalism, law, government, religion, culture, etc. which run the danger of being considered more important than the people to whom those things were created to serve. Unlike films that have opted for a similar type of commentary such as 2013s Elysium, Snowpiercer never talks down to the audience and even maintains a level of empathy and understanding for all sides involved in the picture. Instead of falling into a simple duality of elite vs poor, the film analyses the complexity of society’s need to impose systems of control juxtaposed with mankind’s innate desire towards freedom. What some audiences may find chilling is how equally reasonable the sometimes horrific actions of those with power within Snowpiercer are compared to the dissenters. Is humanity a slave to the boundaries they set for themselves or is living free worth the cost of the comfort & safety of those boundaries? Director Bong Joon-Ho definitely answers that question while posing another that is more pertinent to the themes he wishes to explore: the fundamental difference between “survival” and “living.” It is generally assumed by the impoverished denizens, of the rear of the train, that those towards the front are “living” better lives than they, and on the surface that may seem true, but ultimately the film reveals that even the elite are enslaved to the very system they worship and adore.
It’s a testament to Bong Joon-Ho as a filmmaker to toe the line between a film that is at once incredibly challenging and yet accessible. The strong foundation for the film lies in its structure and screenplay, both of which are tight and clear. The script is written by Bong and Kelly Masterson, based on a French comic book published in 1982 & written by Jaques Lob (Superdupont). The movie slowly unfolds as characters move forward throughout the train. The film opens in the steampunk filth of the tail section, and every subsequent segment, through each train car, has a gradual change in the aesthetics. It is still possible to enjoy Snowpiercer as an inventive, well-crafted action film. As the film is based off a French comic book, the direction does well to replicate the framing & composition of a European graphic novel, specifically the expressive yet minimalist art from the original illustrator Jean-Marc Rochette, which has as distinct a look as Asian comics do from US ones. The film retains a very stylish and stylized look that is distinct to itself despite a drab color palate. Although the film maker was confined to a narrow train for which to play out the set-pieces, each one feels totally different from one another. There are chaotic skirmishes, slow-motion fisticuffs and labyrinth-styled chases. A standout sequence is set in total darkness against forces equipped with night vision goggles while another is a gunfight between two cars of the train when on a curve in the tracks. Each sequence not only advances the story but they have specific goals and emotional struggles within them and help to develop the characters.
Speaking of characters, the dramatization ranges from complex and fully nuanced, to immediate & simple. The cast is led by Chris Evans (Captain America, Not Another Teen Movie) who gets a chance to really show off a level of versatility & vulnerability he never gets to in the big blockbusters he’s usually cast in. He plays Curtis the de-facto leader of the segment of the populace living in the last train car. Evans opts to play him less as the bold patriarch a la Captain America, but as a tortured and morally uncertain soul. He’s supported by Jamie Bell as Edgar, who is simultaneously Curtis’ right-hand man & surrogate younger brother. John Hurt as Gilliam, the grizzled veteran of past rebellions in the train, plays the character with a sense of whimsy rarely seen in fictionalized “revolutionaries.” Ed Harris’ Wilford, the inventor of the train, is given little screen time, but his warm and down to earth presence in those scenes creates an engaging dissonance with the characters’ position in the story. Rounding out the cast is a near unrecognizable Tilda Swinton as Mason, Wilford’s bureaucratic envoy to the Tail, and she plays her almost as an impression of a living political cartoon which could have hurt the film’s believability but Swinton commits herself so fully into disappearing into the character that it works.
Snowpiercer is one of the most audacious and bold genre films of this generation. It’s a well-crafted sci-fi blockbuster that also is willing to commit to a clearly defined moral fable and stay topical without any irony or self-awareness. This is a film that poses the type of conundrums, dilemmas and questions about “right & wrong” but isn’t ashamed to give audiences an enjoyable time with visceral thrills and entertaining performances. It can be easy for audiences who have “seen it all” to be cynical, but a film like Snowpiercer shows that even though we have ridden these paths before, it can still be a ride worth taking.