The Dickensian Dystopia of ‘Snowpiercer’

The following is a review originally published in Word and Film.

Snowpiercer is a fantastic dumb movie for smart people. Or maybe it’s just a fantastic smart movie for everybody. Either way, I’m in love; this is the first big-scale picture of the summer that deserves to put tons of bodies in movie theater seats. The irony is that it belongs to the two cinema genres already glutting multiplexes to the chagrin of many. It’s both an action pic and a comic book adaptation – albeit a Korean adaptation of Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette’s 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, which is basically a brainy cocktail of Speed and Brazil. On the rocks.

For seventeen years, Earth has been adrift in an Ice Age caused by a misguided effort to head off climate change. The only humans still alive are sealed off from the elements on the Snowpiercer, a perpetual motion-powered train that hurtles around the earth every 365 days. At the front dwell those who could afford to buy their seats; at the rear, the unwashed ragamuffins who secured their (most piteous of) positions through a lottery. The “haves” luxuriate in spas, nightclubs, and lush greenhouses, swilling sushi and champagne while their children are brainwashed by a Martha Stewart-on-crack schoolmarm (Alison Pill as you’ve never seen her). The “have-nots” languish in unlit shantytowns in which they are subject to terrible brutality (amputation being the standard punishment for insubordination), maw black gelatinous blocks fashioned from a nebulous animal protein, and are presided over by Mason (Tilda Swinton, sporting a dental prosthesis that’s practically four-dimensional), a Thatcher-esque bureaucrat who brandishes a polyester glove on an iron fist.

Until recently Mason has been very successful at keeping the untouchables under control. But a revolution is brewing, led by Curtis (an almost unrecognizably grim Chris Evans) and his gang of radicals including Tanya (Octavia Spencer), whose son has been kidnapped by those up front; Edgar (Jamie Bell), a “train baby” who has never experienced a better life; resident guru Gilliam (John Hurt, sporting prosthetic limbs fashioned out of household tools); and psychedelically addled security specialist Namgoong Minsoo (Song Kang-ho) and his psychically addled daughter Yona (Ko Ah-sung). The plan: to storm the front and force Wilford (Ed Harris), the silk bathrobe-clad engineer of this Dickensian dystopia, to structure a more egalitarian ecosystem. On this train, subtext is supertext.

Leave it to Bong Joon-ho to pull all this off. In his previous films The Host and Mother, the Korean director demonstrated an uncanny ability to subvert cinematic genres while also reveling in them. In “Snowpiercer,” he transcends genre while reveling in it. The social commentary is laid out for all to see – as shiny as that gorgeous train barreling around the glinting rails – but nuance still abounds, mostly in his meticulous design. The many battle scenes are impressively choreographed and impressionistically photographed; the front and back of the train breathtaking in their contrast. Events unfold with a storybook sequencing that not only echoes the neat delineation of the train cars but defies the murkiness that dooms so many dystopic pictures. Composer Marco Beltrami’s original score – bold and brassy – heightens the tension. Only a second-rate CGI is a bummer, rendering the vistas of the frozen-over Earth disappointingly artificial.

Another reason Snowpiercer works so well is that it’s truly an international action pic. This is Bong’s first English-language feature, and, because it is financed outside out of the American studio system, it sacrifices none of his trademark wit and rise-up social observation while casting for a wider audience. (Technically, this is still a Korean film because of its budgeting structure.) whack of righteous violence (which, let’s face it, is a large part of of the genre’s appeal), a tough-guy rigor, and even a bona-fide American action star. But with its unusually eclectic cast and assiduous character development (it’s nice to see Evans acting rather than merely reacting here), as well as a pacing that suffers from none of ye olde Hollywood “hurry-up-and-wait,” Snowpiercer also lingers over the sort of philosophical and political questions for which Bong is known: Can we preserve our humanity in inhumane circumstances? Do humans really require social stratification in order to survive? And, most crucially, can our own mass-produced meals be as nastily sourced as we learn those protein bars are? One thing’s for sure: The sky’s the limit in this big, silvery metaphor of a train.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy