High-concept science fiction is a really tricky thing to pull off. It needs to exist within its own established world and also as the allegory it’s clearly meant to be. Something like District 9 did that very well, while others (like, oh, say Elysium) have a harder time with it. It always helps to have solid source material, stellar actors, a savvy screenplay, and a filmmaker who’s not afraid to take chances. And, fortunately for filmgoers, all of these things are present in Snowpiercer, the first English-language film from South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho. The movie features fantastic visuals, a compelling and weird story, and the requisite amount of action, comedy, and tragedy. It’s a melange of intrigue.
Based on a French graphic novel from the ’80s called Le Transperceneige, Snowpiercer tells the story of the last vestiges of humankind following a man-made catastrophe that resulted in the earth being frozen and subject to near-constant blizzards. (It’s a nuclear winter… get it?) Humans live on a miles-long super train which runs perpetually around the entire world, designed and operated by Wilford, hailed by many as a savior and a god, but by the people in the back of the train as a tyrant. You see, the whole train is a caste system; those who could afford to 18 years ago lived in the front of the train and those who couldn’t were relegated to the back of the train in cramped, dirty conditions, fed bricks of protein gelatin, and are subject to whatever the train’s security force deems necessary. It’s a pretty crummy existence. There have been attempts at uprising before, but they’ve all been put down. But maybe that will change.
A group of back-dwellers are hatching perhaps the best chance yet; Curtis (Chris Evans), one of the few people in the back with all of his limbs intact, has figured out that there is a moment every day where four gates are open at once. If they can wedge these open, Curtis and others like Edgar (Jamie Bell), Andrew (Ewen Bremner), Tanya (Octavia Spencer), and their aging mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) can move forward and retrieve from the prison section Namgoong Minsoo (Song Kang-ho), the drug-addicted man who designed all of the locking mechanisms for the train’s gates. He brings his daughter (Ko Ah-sung) along and agrees to help on the stipulation they keep the pair of them fully stocked with cubes of hallucinogen made from flammable refuse. It’s not as easy as it appears, though (not that it appeared very easy) because there are lots of people working for Wilford who want to stop this insurgence, including his mouthpiece Mason (played by a denture-wearing and Yorkshire-accented Tilda Swinton). Blood will need to be spilled if this insurrection is to work.
It’s a fairly complicated setup for what essentially amounts to a straight-line narrative: good guys try to get from point A to point B; bad guys try to prevent said point-reaching. However, like most great movies, it’s the journey and not the destination that’s important. We learn very little about the characters up front, but we completely understand their plight: they are being persecuted and they’d really rather that not happen anymore. However, as they go, we start to learn things and get a sense for why it means SO much that they reach the front. Nobody yet has even reached the halfway point in the train. Curtis feels ashamed of having all of his limbs, because so many have gotten theirs removed for defiance. He doesn’t want to be the leader and wants Gilliam to take over, even though he’s really the best suited for it. Edgar idolizes Curtis, who doesn’t know how to handle it. Tanya and Andrew each have had a child abducted for no given reason and want to get them back with all their soul. There are some really deep things going on.
We also have the fun of them traveling in between all the different cars and how their look changes the further toward the front we and the fighters get. It’s very grimy and sewer-like in the very back, then it gets to be just empty and metallic through the soldier’s quarters and the more industrial parts of the train (like the making of the food… that’ll stay with you) before getting to the nicer parts, which I dare not spoil for you. The first credits at the beginning of the movie after “A Bong Joon-ho Film” are given to the costume designer, makeup and hairstylist, and production designer. These are very well-earned upfront credits; the movie’s aesthetic is its strongest feature and would have completely died if each train car wasn’t unique and interesting, if each costume wasn’t exactly what it should be, and if all the various wounds didn’t look as real as possible. These are usually middle credits at best, but Bong recognizes their importance and recognizes them accordingly.
There are some truly excellent action set pieces, made all the more enthralling because they’re taking place within the cramped space of train cars. And these are big battle scenes, too, wherein dozens of peasants with pipes and pieces of metal take on dozens of soldiers with axes and edged weapons. It’s brutal for sure. There are also exterior CGI scenes of the train traveling or doing what the title suggests and piercing the snow, and these are fine, but the fights are truly where the film shines.
Bong Joon-ho prior to this had directed three films that I really, really enjoyed: Memories of Murder (2003), The Host (2006), and Mother (2009). All three films exemplify his love of the family unit and the hard decisions made in the effort of saving them (which often times you can’t). Snowpiercer continues this trend and ups Bong’s game remarkably well. His producer on this film, Park Chan-wook, the fabulous filmmaker of things like Oldboy and Thirst, made his own English language debut with Stoker last year, and while that was a good effort, it wasn’t quite up to his earlier work. Snowpiercer is absolutely on par, or even surpassing, of Bong Joon-ho’s earlier canon.
If there’s a downside to the movie, it’s that the ending definitely feels very Matrix Reloaded. I was hoping for something a little less expected to go along with the rest of the film, which never gave away the game too soon. I suppose there isn’t many other ways this type of story could have ended, but it was still slightly disappointing when it happened. Also, there’s some logistic things that don’t get answered. Like where does everyone in the front sleep? We never see their quarters. Where does everyone go to the bathroom? Do people have to walk through everybody’s living rooms every time they want to go somewhere or is there a path we’re not seeing?
These aren’t enough to make me dislike the movie or the effort at all. Far from it, in fact. I would say this is one of my top five films of the year. It’s inventive and grim and the acting from everyone is astonishing. All the Swinton ever, please. Also, Evans gives one of his best performances and is full of pained nuance, the way I’m sure he wishes Steve Rogers could be more often. Snowpiercer is fun and exciting, deep and emotional, and has one of the weirdest and coolest central conceits of any movie I’ve seen in a long time.
All hail the Summer of Smart Sci-Fi!