South Korea. Directed by Joon-ho Bong, 2013. Starring Chris Evans, Kang-ho Song, Tilda Swinton. 126 minutes.
Of all the possible ways the tattered remnants of humanity could survive a global Hoth-pocalypse, “on a train” doesn’t seem like a particularly likely option. But that’s the option Joon-ho Bong chose to explore in Snowpiercer, a very loose adaptation of an early-’80s French graphic novel.
Seventeen years after a botched attempt to counteract global climate change causes a world-wide ice age that kills almost every living thing on the planet, the last few living humans travel round the world on the Snowpiercer, a massive train powered by a perpetual-motion locomotive. Society has degenerated to become a literal dystopia-in-a-box (well, series of boxes): a highly regimented class system with a place for everything and everything in its place. The poor live in squalor in the tail cars; the well-to-do dwell in the lap of luxury towards the front; and in the engine car, Wilford, the Great Engineer, rules over them all. The posh Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) periodically visits the train’s slums to dispense justice and tell the urchins who live there how lucky they are that they get to live here at all.
But rebellion is in the air, led by the elderly Gilliam (John Hurt) and his protege Curtis (Chris Evans). They plan to abduct Namgoong “Nam” Minsu (Kang-ho Song), the drug-addled tech who designed the train’s security systems, and use his knowledge to force their way to the front of the train and finally depose Wilford.
Cinematic history, I’d like to introduce you to Snowpiercer, the film that will be remembered as its generation’s equivalent of The Matrix if there’s any justice in the universe.
One of the axes you’ve probably seen me grind on this site in the past (and believe me, I plan to grind it even more in the future) is how Nobody Makes Science Fiction Movies Like They Used to Anymore. Science fiction was once known as “the literature of ideas.” Now it’s just a flimsy excuse for whatever hunk is fashionable this week to pop his shirt off and kick ass. Not that there’s anything wrong with action and eye-candy; I liked Godzilla and Pacific Rim and The Avengers just fine.
Snowpiercer looks similar on the surface. There’s plenty of effects work and gunfire and explosions and Chris Evans punching people. But this time those things serve the ideas and story instead of the other way round. Bong and screenwriting partner Kelly Masterson have actually put thought into the setting, how a society like this would sustain itself and what its leaders would need to do to keep the structure they’d imposed on it in place. The allegory is obvious, but it works because we can see ourselves responding to these situations in these ways. The answers it poses to its questions have a libertarian slant–part-and-parcel of the modern dystopia–but small touches keep the ideology at bay (Swinton’s performance, for example, which I’ll get to in a bit) and understands the price a revolution would have to pay for “liberation.”
Great ideas and a thoughtful plot are wonderful things to have, but audiences really like to have them married to good characterization and acting, and Snowpiercer offers us these as well. Both standout performances are supporting roles. Swinton’s Mason is a self-important, self-righteous latter-day aristo: try imagining a Tea Party caricature with a North of England Accent, or a cross between Margaret Thatcher and Pauline from The League of Gentlemen. Song is perfect as the unhinged Nam, a rogue who clearly knows more than he’s letting on.
Curtis is a bit of a cliché, the grim Byronic hero, but both the dialogue and Evans’s performance succeed in making the character engaging where so many other attempts have failed. It’s been said that Hurt has played the same damn character in most of his last ten movies and his Doctor Who episode, but here he demonstrates how he became the go-to man for this type of character. Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, and a gloriously goofy Ewan Bremner–there simply isn’t a bad performance in this film.
Bong’s masterful direction pulls it all together. Snowpiercer feels like an impossible environment, a place that shouldn’t work in as little space as it has, but he makes it work by starting off in an oppressively claustrophobic mode and gradually opening space up as he goes along. The editing and pacing are similarly effective, and the film benefits by cutting its dark tone with a healthy dose of satire.
If I have any complaints, it’s with the massive fight sequence that comes about halfway through the film–it does its job well enough, but it feels more “awesome” than credible and at any rate it’s not the sort of thing I’m much into. Your mileage may vary.
Every so often a movie comes along and somehow, against all odds, manages to get everything right. Strong plot, thought-provoking story, memorable characters, terrific performances, exhilarating action, beautiful design and effects…a movie that is, in short, all things to all people. Snowpiercer is one of those movies. Treasure it.