– Summary –
Director : Bong Joon-ho
Year Of Release : 2013
Principal Cast : Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Go Ah-sung, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, Ewen Bremner, Luke Pasquilano, Alison Pill, Vlad Ivanov.
Approx Running Time : 125 Minutes
Synopsis: In a post apocalyptic future, humanity now lives aboard a perpetually moving train, escaping the total winter which envelops the globe. The richest live at the front, closest to the Engine, while the poor and destitute scrabble out lives at the rear of the train. And the poor and destitute aren’t happy about it.
What we think : Malevolent, enticing, stunning sci-fi opus that leaves behind any feel-good tropes or gee-whizz resolution – Snowpiercer is as dark as they come. Is it great? In my opinion, yes, but I can see this dividing a lot of audiences with its driving, pulsing narrative and horrific, soul-destroying revelations; Snowpiercer might not be revolutionary cinema, but it is a film you’ll be talking about for a while.
Don’t need no ticket to ride this train.
When most people think of films based on graphic novels (laymen still refer to them as the pejorative “comic book”, although a graphic novel is technically a subbranch of the genre) they think of Watchmen, The Dark Knight, Kick-Ass or maybe even The Walking Dead. Snowpiercer, a film from Korean director Bong Joon-ho, whose most popular film to-date for Western audiences is the hugely enjoyable The Host (no, not the one by Stephenie Meyer) from 2006, read a French graphic novel by Jaques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette entitled Le Transperceniage, about the last survivors of humanity living out their existence aboard a train that runs continuously around a now-frozen Earth. As of writing this review, I have yet to get my hands on the comic itself, so I cannot judge the resulting book-to-film translation as a quantifiable essence, but if the film is anything to go by, that graphic novel must be the shit. Snowpiercer isn’t an expected men-in-tights superhero story, nor is it even a horror, detective or crime opus; instead, it’s a bleak, post-apocalyptic science fiction story that feels small in scale yet enormous in emotion.
In the near future, humanity tries to combat global warming by releasing a chemical into the atmosphere that will hopefully reduce temperatures to manageable levels. The chemical fails, turning a heavily populated Earth into a ball of ice and snow hurtling through space. With life all but extinguished, the last remnants of humanity have survived by boarding a train, built and owned by a man known as Mr Wilford (Ed Harris), on a track which circumnavigates the globe on a continent-spanning line, once every year. At the rear of the train, are the dregs of society; they exist on meager jelly-like protein rations and constant abuse by those further forward. The closer to the train’s engine one gets, the better class of society you have; it’s an imbalance those in the tail have grown frustrated and hateful of, and several previous attempts to storm the “front section” have met with near universal destruction for the insurgents. Curtis Everett (Chris Evans – Captain America), together with his friend Edgar (Jamie Bell) and resident Knower Of All, Gillman (John Hurt), have concocted a plan to make a break from the front section, and take their chance after discovering that the men guarding their exit have no bullets in their weapons. Wilford’s underling, a woman named Mason (Tilda Swinton) is taken hostage by them, rebuked for her disdain for the tail enders, and Curtis engages the help of drug addict Namgoon Minsu (Song Kang-ho), who designed the locks on all the doors segregating the population. As Curtis and his band of rebellious tail enders makes their way through the train, combating a plethora of heavily armed guards, and on into the luxurious front sections of the train, it becomes obvious that he will need to sacrifice something precious to himself in order to put a stop to an ingrained sense of entitlement and excess.
Snowpiercer is probably more famous for the ground-roots campaign by filmfans to stop Harvey Weinstein, the head of the company that purchased the distribution rights for this film in the US, to hack up the 2 hour film into a more cineplex-friendly 90 minute escapade to make more money, than it is for the quality of the film itself. It probably worked out a lot better for the film that he did decide to create a ruckus, because I have a sneaking suspicion Snowpiercer might not have had the audience it did otherwise. This isn’t to say it’s not a very good film, because it is a terrific little indie film that delivers a whole load of shebang, but aside from casting Chris Evans (currently playing Marvel’s Captain America), Oscar nominee Tilda Swinton, Oscar Nominee Octavia Spencer, Oscar Winner Ed Harris, as well as Jamie Bell and Ewen Bremner, who is even in this film! LOL!! I mean seriously, how this movie didn’t attract more attention has me confounded.
The premise itself is rather interesting – the inherent class system involved is both provocative to the inhabitants of the train, and sadly plausible to us given the disparity between rich and poor in our world today. What is more interesting is how the film tries to justify this system, particularly late in the piece with Ed Harris’s Wilford giving his dissertation as to why this was implemented (it’s not entirely cut and dried, but it gives one pause); aside from this one-note plot, the rest of the film functions as a fairly bleak, desperate survivalist story, so I guess not too many people wanted to hang out watching a rattly old train blasting through the frozen tundra. Snowpiercer’s fundamental survival aspect is also rather confronting – not too many people who start this film make it to the end, so be prepared for plenty of carnage and mayhem, some of which works emotionally, and some which flat-out doesn’t. As the tail enders make their way through the swarm of military types intent on stopping their progress, the body count rises considerably, leaving the expected resolution not quite as easy to pick as you’d think. It’s kinda like Game Of Thrones On A Train, if you will. Nobody’s safe.
That said, director Bong Joon-ho makes this film look and feel superbly realistic. From the set design (one imagines all but a small portion of it was filmed on a soundstage) to the casting, as well as the visual effects and the sheer brutality of the situation, Snowpiercer is replete with style and a sense of itself that never fails to captivate. The dirty, grimy lower class section at the rear of the train, and the shiny, quiet and luxurious front half of the vehicle are all perfectly accessible to a viewer in a way that negates the need for large portions of explanatory dialogue. Joon-ho uses a simple, easy to follow shorthand in depicting the sections of class aboard the train, and as a world in and of itself, Snowpiercer is decidedly flawless.
As mentioned earlier, the cast are all standouts – even the secondary supporting cast all perform admirable and relatively believable jobs – led by a focused and driven Chris Evans as Curtis. Evans is a far cry from the shiny world of Marvel’s Captain America here, with Curtis’ reluctant leader tag feeling a predictable as the film progresses, rather than as organic as it should. John Hurt’s bespectacled Old Person personifies experience and wisdom, while Octavia Spencer’s Tanya, whose son is taken by the guards to the Engine for reasons unknown, is desperate to find her boy again. One of the genuine highlights of Snowpiercer is Tilda Swinton, as the creepy, weird Mason, one of Wilford’s underlings, who carries out her tasks of degradation and subjugation with an apparent disinterest in even doing it in the first place. Her character reminded me a lot of Elizabeth Banks’ Effie from The Hunger Games – smile, even when there’s nothing to smile about. Swinton makes the role her own, and almost steals the film out from the rest of the cast and Bong Joon-ho himself. Ed Harris pops in late in the film to do a lot of talking (blergh) and Jamie Bell’s enthusiastic rebel character is as tragic as they come (Bell does well, but his character is more reactive than proactive in terms of development, and most of his emotional work is done well after the character is written out of the movie – if you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I mean).
Crucially, this film has some truly devastating plot developments in its final act. Curtis’ revelations about his early days aboard the train, and how he survived, twist his initially noble and crusading character into something else entirely. Some might find it a little too much of a stretch, but it ripped my heart out to learn about Curtis’s history with Gillman and Edgar. The entire film flips itself on its head in that final act, traversing the arch between straight-up sci-fi survival, into something else entirely. I won’t spoil it, but I think it’s this point of the film which may divide many into the “hated this” camp. Snowpiercer involves a lot of subtext and social commentary (considering its inherent social caste system, how could it not?) and the success of the film will largely depend on whether people take this on board or not, or whether they are prepared to go with the melancholy tone Joon-ho gives the movie. Honestly, I thought it was terrific – it wasn’t a film I expected, meaning it surprised me, so that makes it okay in my book – but I can see how some might baulk at what they find after the opening credits.
Snowpiercer deserves as wide an audience as it can get. It isn’t the easiest film to watch, in terms of themes and narrative, and there’s plenty of violence (although I must point out that the violence never feels pornographic or gratuitous), but the reward is something that will make you at least think about what the film is trying to say. It should provoke discussion, at the very least. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Is it a great, wondrous film? Well, with a few caveats, it’s pretty darn good. Will everyone enjoy it? No. I urge casual viewers to give it a shot, though, because I think it at least deserves to be seen once.