They start at the back of the train and make their way to the front of the train. That’s all the characters in South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho’s riotously fun sci-fi action thriller Snowpiercer have to do. The depth and the smarts of the film come from why this journey has to be made in the first place. A blisteringly political tale of class warfare, it’s more than just a thrill a minute showstopper that rivals any other summer blockbuster made on fifty times the budget. It’s a smart, funny, and ultimately poignant and moving bit of futuristic fiction that wears its heart and ideologies on its sleeve.
It’s 2031 and the world is frozen solid and buried under layers of ice and snow as a result of global warming solutions gone horribly awry. The only thousand or so survivors have been packed onto a seemingly indestructible train that orbits Asia, Europe, and Africa on a 365 day trip. It’s impervious to the increasingly dangerous elements outside, but things on the inside aren’t so great. While the leader of the train and the rich sit towards the front of the train in abject luxury, the have-nots cram into the rear carriages to live in filth, squalor, and fear of the rest of the train. With tensions at a head, a revolution has been hatched despite several squashed rebellions in years past. The resistance is led by headstrong Curtis (Chris Evans) and his hotheaded best friend Edgar (Jamie Bell). They seek to place a wise, older resident of the rear carriage (John Hurt) in power, but making their way to the front and past the minions and soldiers of evil overseer Mason (Tilda Swinton) is far easier said than done.
Snowpiercer isn’t merely about forward progression in a literal sense, but it also brings into question what gets sacrificed in the name of progress. Everyone on board the train built by the mysterious and Howard Hughes-ian Willard (who isn’t glimpsed until the end, and the person playing them shouldn’t be spoiled if you can help it) has sacrificed something major to get on board in even the cheapest and dirtiest of seats while constantly being sold a lie about how they should stay in line and be happy to still be alive at all. Quite often what’s being sold and thrown away is any sense of actual humanity. It’s a class struggle about rising up that very gradually becomes about not unwittingly playing into or becoming a part of the system that’s supposed to be supplanted. It starts out revolutionary, but the line gets thinner and thinner as the film progresses to a point where Curtis won’t only be unsure of his leadership abilities, but also about every single choice he has made since he got aboard the train.
To talk more about the themes would be to delve into spoiler territory, and although the film has been talked about almost countless times before it has even been officially released in Canada, the joy of watching Snowpiercer comes from how Joon-Ho constantly surprises the audience with new developments and twists every several minutes without outright goosing them to get a reaction. Even in the middle of sometimes epic, close quarter battle sequences, things will happen that might seem insignificant but will pay off as the film continues.
With every progressing and passing car the revolution hits another new snag. Sometimes it’s humorous and whimsical. Sometimes it’s deadly or life changing. It’s a testament to Joon-Ho’s talents as a storyteller that the film feels like a fully realized world rather than a series of escalating vignettes on the same subject. It’s a nightmarish world that the likes of Terry Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet could get behind, but also something wholly original. Plenty of films have been made about futuristic revolutions and out of control/under siege trains, but there’s a clearly building narrative momentum and attention to character, nuance, and an oddly refreshing lack of subtlety that work together to create a near perfect action flick.
Evans, who has always been somewhat undervalued as an actor, gets a chance to look deep inside his character and portray a man with one final chance in life to make mistakes in his past right. Not even death can stop his mission, even though he has little desire to lead and his mission is almost as selfish in some ways as the people he’s trying to overthrow. His supporters include a sympathetic confidant in Bell, a sage and level headed Hurt, the train’s once imprisoned and drug addicted locksmith (Song Kang-Ho) and his equally substance addled daughter (Ko Ah-sung), and a woman who will stop at nothing to get her mysteriously missing son back (Octavia Spencer, in a strong turn in a small role). As a unit they seem dysfunctional despite a common goal, and that seems to be part of the ultimate point. Resistance to great power is only as futile as the ideology behind it. The ideology comes in human form via Swinton’s deliciously evil power hungry sycophant with an almost implacable and impenetrable accent. Her character – an amalgamation of essentially every despotic ruler of the 20th century – plays all angles “for queen and country,” so to speak, but she really only cares about saving her own ass and she only speaks in metaphors and nostalgic stories no one but her can connect to.
But what matters the most here is the world building, and that’s where Snowpiercer excels. It takes a massive leap of faith to make an audience believe that an entirely self-contained ecosystem could exist aboard a single train following the apocalypse. Joon-ho and co-writer Kelly Masterson take French graphic novelists Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette’s 1982 source material at face value. It was a smart story that took place under outlandish circumstances. Joon-ho doesn’t change much outside of updating the cultural relevancy and making a lot of the small details of the world seem grander and grimier at the same time. It’s a bleak film that keeps escalating in terms of stakes and general wonderment as the team progresses through the richer areas of the train, and yet much like the train itself, the whimsy is self-contained and manageable.
And it should go without saying that the action sequences here are top notch. A full scale riot between revolutionaries with torches and axe wielding agents of the train’s nanny state is up there with anything in The Raid 2 in terms of the year’s craziest sequences of out and out carnage. But the film comes together best in a really unexpected place – the train’s education centre for youngsters – it’s the perfect blend of action packed craziness, Joon-ho’s satirical sensibilities, and notably insightful writing that might steal the show. If there’s one thing that could be said against the film, it’s that the film’s low budget means that a lot of the elaborate and ambitious visual effects aren’t always that convincing. Considering how often Joon-Ho plays to his own strengths, that’s a very minor and fleeting complaint.
At any rate, yes, Snowpiercer is exactly the film people have been hoping it would be since they started hearing of its existence well over a year ago, and yes, it deserved a heck of a lot better than it got from its US distributors. Now you can make up for it by going to see it as soon as possible and sticking it to the other summer blockbusters.
Oh, and although it’s also available on VOD this week, see it in a theatre. It’s a film designed to be watched as big and loud as possible.