Snowpiercer is possibly this year’s best film that you’ve never heard of. Now I know that sounds like hyperbole, and I sure do have a habit of starting a review with a sentence that could basically sum the entire thing up, but I’ve got column inches to fill and writing reams of text makes me feel self-important so hang in there folks.
Snowpiercer has an odd premise. Directed by Bong Joon-ho, who made the excellent The Host (2006) the South Korean monster film, it’s based off the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige - which is the sound you make when you sneeze - by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette. How a South Korean director came to adapt a French graphic novel for his first English language film, starring Captain America is strange enough. That origin tale itself is a movie I’d like to see, and that’s before we get into Snowpiercer’s curious mix of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, eco messages, class commentaries, ultra violence, and extended bottling. The whole film takes place on the interior of a vast train, the last bastion of humanity, which circles a frozen earth on a route that takes exactly 365 days to loop the globe. The New Year is marked by passing over a particular bridge. The lore goes that due to the encroaching threat of mass global warming; an experiment to spray the earth with chemicals or something suitably stupid plunges the world into a seemingly endless ice age and kills nearly everything on the face of the planet.
So far so good. Nice going humanity.
The survivors who managed to make it onto the Snowpiercer find themselves on a vast train, with the poor in the tail and the rich in the head. If you missed this blunt metaphor, don’t worry, it will be used as a weapon to bludgeon you across the head repeatedly through the film’s neat running time. The Snowpiercer is beautifully realised, with excellently crafted locations, ranging from the bleak tail, a mix of coal mines and slum favelas in appearance, right to the head, with its aquariums, classrooms, vast green houses and decadent nightclubs filled with drug addict revellers. The only problem with the train as a concept is if you look at it too closely, all of the logic immediately starts to disintegrate. The film seems to imply that the train is a straight line, with only one floor, no upper decks or sub basements, meaning that to get to their classroom, the children have to pass through an aquarium, a green house, a sushi bar, and a steam room filled with naked people, and a dirty nightclub. Not that there isn’t enough propaganda in their classroom to appropriately mess them up anyway.
I don’t want to be petty about this, though. We can assume that we don’t see the entire train in the film, as it is continuously described by the inhabitants as vast, but it seems fairly small. I’ll digress on this point purely because the rest of the film is so bloody good that I’ll take the Snowpiercer for what it is - an excellent metaphor and a great location for some incredible set pieces - and leave it at that. When a film jumps locations or time frames, we know that the characters (usually) aren’t teleporting or travelling through time, so we’ll assume here that the journey through the train is more than what we see.
Chris Evans is Curtis, the de-facto leader of the rebellion we see brewing at the start of the film. Gilliam (John Hurt) is his elderly advisor of sorts, a man who used to be the leader but is now all old and wizened and missing a number of limbs for reasons that would be spoilers. Curtis reluctantly accepts the responsibility that is thrust upon him, though it takes him most of the film, because it is apparently impossible to have a heroic type in a film who can stand up and admit that despite eating jelly for 18 years, he is built like a tank, has designer stubble, and a jaw line hewn by the gods. He should just stand up and say yeah, fine, I’m an Adonis, and the highest paid guy here, I should probably lead this rabble. But I suppose you need character development or something.
The aim is to get to the front of train, to Wilford, the owner of the Snowpiercer and the mythical man running the engine that never talks and never answers the phone. There is a lot of focus on how horrible things are for the poor in the tail, but the true details are spared for a monologue at the end for Evans that would have been disgusting and beautiful if it wasn’t ruined by an overlong speech, and hammy writing. I don’t want to spoil anything but there’s a particular line that we’ve been quoting ever since that if you don’t find funny, probably proves that we are closet psychopaths.
Of course, Curtis’ little uprising gets further towards the nose of the train than anyone has ever managed in the past, because a failed uprising would make for a boring film indeed. Cue some incredible set pieces. A massive battle between Curtis forces and heavily armed and armoured guards in an empty carriage is slowed turn and turned into a beautiful ballet of blood and guts, stopping mid fight to celebrate the New Year. It’s bizarre, and it raises a smirk. You really get the feeling that this is a world away from ours. Then the train passes into a tunnel and the armed guards don night vision goggles to take the fight back. Joon-ho has a stroke of genius here by taking conventions from video games and making the night vision segments first person. We see through the guards eyes, as they bring their axes down on the heads of the blinded rebels, taking their time and picking their targets while the poor tail rats flail the empty air. It’s horrible and brutal and everything a good action flick should be. Then Curtis brings the fire.
It’s hard to get into the details of why Snowpiercer just works, without spoiling too much of story. There’s a lot about it that is downright stupid, and many of the central themes and plot threads unravel when put under the microscope, but that’s a problem that the Sci-Fi genre has always had to live with. The film is beautifully shot and directed, and the attention to detail on the Snowpiercer makes you wish you could get onto it and just explore it. Each carriage feels like its own tiny, excluded world, and Joon-ho isn’t afraid to spent time lingering over the details on the train, letting Evans and co. feel their way around the train, our sense of wonder and disgust mirroring their own. The plot of moving to the head of the Snowpiercer gives everything a palpable sense of momentum. They’re always trying to move forward, we’re always moving forward, and a natural endgame at the head of the train comes right on time to stop things going stale.
If nothing else, the idea of moving from tail to tip is perfect for a film. The action sequences are masterfully shot, and there are some incredible and brutal close encounters. At times, there’s the temptation to make the action a bit too arty, with copious amounts of The Matrix style slow motion used, but I feel like we’ve come out the other end of that. Slow mo is cool again, and a lot of the choreography seems to take obvious cues from The Raid, which is no bad thing. Even some of the grim, cramped locationshave strong echoes of Gareth Evan’s Indonesian brawler.
Evans is a solid leading man, stoic, stable, and slightly dull. He broods a lot about his dark past and about how he shouldn’t be a leader but does it anyway, because he is forced to. So far, so snore.
Tilda Swinton is unrecognisable as Claude, Wilford’s assistant, and the first antagonist. She is a unique character with terrible lines and an awful accent, but somehow it all works. Jamie Bell leaps in as an Irish cliché, playing Curtis’ second hand man, Edgar. Song Kang-ho shows up as a South Korean drug addict who is adept at hacking doors and being mysterious. There’s an attempt to show a variety of races and nationalities that seems to fall flat. I think we can all assume that the Snowpiercer would contain folks of all creeds; we don’t need it to be bluntly pointed out to us at every turn.
The same can be said for the class metaphors. The children are raised to think that the tail folk are lazy scum who eat their own faeces and do little to help themselves out. The further along the train you go, the more decadent things get, there are grand furnishings and beautiful music, and even as Wilford blurts his mantra about how everyone has their place and Claude trips over her badly written metaphors about how they only have sushi twice a year because balance must be maintained in the fish stocks, you can’t help but feel you’ve heard this all before.
Plus, it seems there’s plenty of room on the train for everyone if the rich would learn to share. A late plot development leaves this even more apparent and really makes you wonder what anyone’s motivation on the train really is. The rich are evil for the sake of being evil and the poor are humble and rebellious because that seems to be the default way they should feel. The guards are absolute dick heads because guards are always dick heads, and everything is just a little too clear cut to feel like these are real people. Sure, it’s on an impossible train in a post-apocalyptic world, but every film lives or dies on the human element of its subject matter and Snowpiercer threatens to drop the ball several times.
Ignore that though. Ignore the metaphors, the societal commentary and ignore the impossibility of the train, and you’ve got a great Sci-fi flick, a film that achieves a great deal on a relatively modest budget, packed with fantastic set pieces and locations, buckets of action and blood, and just that right level of pondering and depth that you expect from good Sci-fi. Snowpiercer has its faults but they are outweighed by the stuff that it just nails. If this is your first time hearing about it, lucky you. Go watch it.
Jason Purdy is 22 years old, from Northern Ireland. In his free time, he enjoys writing, reading, listening to music, watching films and going to the gym. He enjoys video games more than a grown man should.
He’s studying for a BA and hopes to do a PhD. Needless to say, he is a glutton for punishment. His debut novel, Cigarette was released in April 2013 with Rowanvale books. He has also written for a number of
short story anthologies, including All Hallows Evil and Undead of Winter. In 2014, he will feature in Curiosity Quills’ The Actuator Anthology with his short story Anna and Lena, and UoU’s Reflexions 2014 collection.
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