At its best, science fiction allows us to view our world and our societies and explore them in ways that can challenge their nature without going at established norms directly. Whether it’s to speak of the futility of war (Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War or Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five) or the fears of technology run amok (The Terminator, Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly) or of society losing itself (Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Fallout series), science fiction touches on serious topics in all sort of ways and allows for an analysis that is both topical as well as detached. Think of how viewing a humanity united in Star Trek helped shape the mindset of the people growing up during the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement.
Korean writer/director Bong Joon-ho has a history of mixing social commentary with major science-fiction touches. His 2006 monster classic, The Host, mixed a straightforward monster movie with satire of South Korean politics and issues dealing with formaldehyde dumping by careless American military. For his first English-language movie, he opted to go one better and freezes the entire world while building society on a train.
Snowpiercer starts with what remains of humanity trapped inside a massive train that rolls across a frozen world. 17 years before, to battle rampant global warming, the governments of the world dispersed a chemical that was supposed to help lower temperatures, only it did its job too well. Cities now lie in ruins, buried under mountains of snow, the oceans are massive ice lakes and there is nothing alive outside the train — not animal, not plant and not bacteria. This makes the preservation of the train and its self-perpetuating engine paramount to keep humanity alive.
In the decades since the train was boarded, a new societal structure has formed — or maybe it’s the old one again. There’s the people at the front of the train, who dine on fruit and meat, sleep in comfortable quarters and have many amenities. But the further back you go, the less you have and the more life is a struggle. Until you get to the rear car and there, you live in total poverty, armed guards come to take census’ daily and your diet consists of a mystery block of protein. You fight to live every day under the yoke of the mysterious Mr. Wilford (Ed Harris) and his right-hand, Ms. Mason (Tilda Swinton). You’re less a guest and more a prisoner, with the threat of violence the only way to keep the crowd in the rear car penned in and segregated from the rest of the train. All previous revolts have ended tragically for those who have dared to upend this situation.
But Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) has a plan that will make his revolution different from the past failures. With the help of Gilliam (John Hurt) and Edgar (Jaime Bell) and a mysterious supporter from further ahead in the train, Curtis plans to storm the first few cars and overwhelm the guards who keep them penned in the back. Then, he will free Nam (Kang-ho Song), the engineer who designed the locks to every door in the train. Nam and his daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko) will extract a price in Kronole, the drug of choice aboard the train, made out of recycled fuel waste for their help. But it will not be an easy march to the front and Curtis will have to be willing to sacrifice everything he holds dear in order to come face to face with the man in charge.
Just like The Host, Bong Joon-ho is adept here at mixing modern social issues and conspiracy theories with a straightforward story. It’s not ironic that the world is thrown into its frozen hell by what amounts to chemtrails in a last ditch attempt to prevent global warming. Nor is it surprising that the society that forms inside the train is akin to the modern 1%/99% that is often spoken of since the Great Recession started. That said, the story isn’t itself interested in allegory per se. This is simply the table setting from which Snowpiercer weaves its tale of revolution. Based off a French graphic novel, the movie mixes in beats from everything like Soylent Green (you don’t think those protein blocks are beef, right?) to Diamonds Are Forever (the two henchmen of Wilford give a real Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd vibe) to The Matrix (systems of societal control at play for both the rear train passengers and those in the front).
In the center is a pretty good performance from Chris Evans. If you’d told me a decade ago that the guy best know for Not Another Teen Movie would be giving serious performances, I’d not have believed it. But between this and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Evans is having a really good year as the good guy caught in extraordinary situations. His Curtis is nowhere the assured Steve Rogers though. He doesn’t even want to admit he’s the leader Gilliam and Edgar see. His whole mission is confronting Wilford for everything he has foisted upon him and the people in the rear compartment. Can he rise up to leadership and make the nobler sacrifices?
Next to Evans are the roles by Swinton as well as Kang-ho Song. Swinton’s Mason isn’t the tyrannical cold-hearted bitch that chews scenery like she would be in a lesser actress’ hands. If anything, she’s like an accountant charged with the task of keeping order. She fumbles at her words, is weak and pathetic, and it’s only her devotion to Wilford and his work that makes her so dangerous – that and how she easily commands violence against the denizens of the rear train. Meanwhile, Kang-ho’s Namgoon acts in his native Korean as an apparent junkie-scientist, but as the movie progresses his importance and his qualities grow. It’s a case of an actor playing a character that’s playing a role designed to fool us. To say more is to start spoiling it, but he comes off as someone who is broken by all that’s happened and is desperate for a way out.
Rounding out the cast are Hurt, Bell, Ah-sung Ko, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner and Allison Pill as either aides, friends or potential enemies. I don’t want to demean them to say they’re one-note roles, but they exist to support or hinder Curtis’ quest. They each play their own small role – Spencer and Bremner chasing after their kids, Bell and Hurt helping Curtis and so on. But the story hinges on Curtis and his ability to make it all the way through the various challenges that Wilford will put in their way, which leads to some amazing set pieces.
Thanks to the setting and to the environment of the movie, the action pieces are something to behold. Fights are close range, tense and brutal. Shootouts become a dangerous proposition as the train rumbles on its eternal ride across a frozen landscape – where a broken window could signal death for all involved. There’s a particular sequence between the rebels and the soldiers of Wilford that takes place during a long tunnel. It’s harrowing and exciting and brutal and one of the film’s highlights. It shows off Bong’s directing, the cinematography of Kyung-pyo Hong and the choreography of stunt coordinators Pavel Cajzl and Julian Spencer.
Likewise, a tip of the hat to production designer Ondrej Nekvasil, costume designer Catherine George and set decorator Beata Brendtnerovà who manage to make the grime and poverty of the rear compartment alive and build each of the cars in the train unique and different. Each one is a set piece and uniquely different from the rest – the aquarium train is one such wonder. Their purpose is not just to be pretty though, but to reinforce the idea that it’s different worlds in the same train. By the time you reach the front cars, you feel like you’re no longer in the same world as where you started. You’ve forgotten it’s all one massive train moving together.
Obviously on a foreign-funded movie like this, special effects are at a premium and they do show their limitations in a few key moments. Even so, Bong and his crew often opt for the more realistic effects as opposed to the CGI that’s popular in Hollywood. Nevertheless, the few instances it pops up – like when the train runs through ice walls blocking the rails, the effects feel dull. There’s a few other instances where they do look better, but just know that this isn’t your typical blockbuster.
However, what separates Snowpiercer from your average summer fare is those big ideas it trundles about. With successful series like The Matrix and The Hunger Games around, dystopian science-fiction rebellions are not new to audiences. Concepts like rebellion against the tyrannical yoke of a far-off ruler or a class system where the heroes have been used and abused for so long that rebellion is the only avenue left are classic. Bong and his co-writer Kelly Masterson paint within a well-known box. The flourishes are in the details, like Swinton’s performance or the set pieces.
Unlike those epic series, this is a far more personal story. Enough time has passed so that the train feels like it’s everything, but not enough that memories of the world from before have been forgotten. Curtis can still recall the world as it was when it fell and the immediate after effects of watching everything you knew freeze and die. Nam shows Yona what soil is and teaches his daughter of the world that could be again. When the children jeer seven frozen escapees who perished trying to flee, Nam can recall their leader and state who she was – this isn’t ancient history to the people in the train nor legend. That lends the story a melancholic sense of failure even as the story propels towards its end. There have been mistakes made and, inside the train, there is someone who remembers or embodies each of those mistakes. It’s also nice that, while the ending leaves the possibility of future movies open, I think the movie says what it needed to be said by the time it’s over. It’s a completed story and not Part 1 of a series.
Snowpiercer does suffer from some of the same issues as The Host. There’s a lot of great ideas but not all of them bear fruit. If the relationship between Edgar and Curtis was more than one-note, then perhaps the later revelations would have their punch. If we knew who Franco the Elder and Franco the Younger were beyond just simply WIlford’s enforcers, then their coming would pack an even bigger punch. The tale of the children becomes crucial to the climax, but their parents – played by Bremner and Spencer – are never more than desperate parents. None of these things derail the movie, mind you. They just keep it from being as great as it could be.
As I watched it, all I could think of were the lines from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos about being stuck on a “pale blue dot.” Because the allegory of the train being their entire world lends it to that comparison. The Earth of Snowpiercer is one that’s been screwed up by humanity. But the people within the train are no different and they’re prone to the same mistakes as those who died frozen outside – short-sightedness, corruption, a disregard for their fellow humans. We can all think in our heads of better ways to have built that society to avoid all the chaos and carnage and suffering that exists within the train. But are we simply doomed to recreate the same failed states and societal structures as before, knowing full well that it’ll only end in eventual chaos and violence?
Snowpiercer is a very, very good movie. It delivers a tale of action and sacrifice in a world that’s removed from ours, but that still feels like ours. There’s plenty of eye candy and when the blood gets flowing, it’s exciting and fun. It announces Bong Joon-ho as a director to look out for on American shores and gives us more great performances from Swinton and Evans. It also shows us that good science-fiction need not be a rare sight during the heat of the summer movie season.