Alright, here is a strange one. Technically a 2013 film, Snowpiercer has first become available to western viewers mostly though online streaming options, and so I count it as a 2014 release here. I’m unfamiliar with the work of the director or the graphic novel that the film is based on, and so can come into this film with unblinkered eyes.
18 years after a disastrous attempt to solve global warming left the Earth a frozen wasteland, what is left of humanity travels incessantly onboard a train with an engine driven by perpetual motion. Onboard, a strict hierarchy has developed, with the elites at the front and the poor at the back. Tired of the obscene conditions they and their fellow underclass must suffer, Curtis (Chris Evans), Edgar (Jamie Bell) and Gilliam (John Hurt) forge a rebellion seeking control of the train from the likes of the warped Mason (Tilda Swinton) and the mysterious engineer Wilford, with the aid of a drug addicted security specialist (Song Kang-ho) and his clairvoyant daughter (Go Ah-Sung).
In order to get any kind of enjoyment out of Snowpiercer, you have to approach it like some kind of bizarre post-apocalyptic fairy tale, where the rules of logic not only do not apply, but were thrown out the window long ago. Looking at the premise presented in Snowpiercer with an analytical eye will yield a mountain of plot holes and inconsistencies, but it is clear that director Bong Joon-ho is long past caring about such things. His film is not about a realistic interpretation of a never stopping train in a frozen wasteland.
No, instead it is about class divide, class war and propaganda. It’s more like Elysium on a train. For a time Bong is content to settle on that, focusing purely on the rebellion of Curtis and others, and the action scenes that follow, as the rebels inch up the train, fighting back against a grotesque and tyrannical upper class government. While the action scenes were not all that, they served their purpose, and the fantastical caricatures helped to keep the experience somewhat enthralling.
But past the half way point, Bong really lets go, and we enter something akin to a Terry Gilliam world, where the warped and increasingly strange vistas threaten to engulf the increasingly stretched point that Snowpiercer wants to make. Curtis’ journey is still worth following, framed as a succession of terrible choices that he is pushed to make in the maelstrom of conflicting emotions that make up the titular train. The ending will dissatisfy many, as it did me, as the plot holes and taut fabric of the universes walls reach far past the Inception tests limits by the conclusion.
But it does help that Bong has assembled such a well working cast. Evans is great, and the quality of his performance, especially in a chilling monologue late on, keeps Snowpiercer from (pun very much intended) going off the rails in large sections. Tilda Swinton’s Mason is a twisted but visually distinctive adversary, who finds an opposite, for most of the film anyway, in John Hurt’s bedraggled Gilliam, a role similar in scope and screen time to his part in Hercules, but played with far more gravitas. Bell’s second in command is an enthusiastically played idealist while Song and Go offer some interesting cutaway performances and sub-plots, albeit somewhat truncated.
Visually Snowpiercer is quite well put together. The cramped environs of the train start off as you would expect, with all of the grime and dankness of the post-apocalyptic genre. But from, there Bong delights in rapidly changing sets of very different styles, all with a general theme of back (or left) being the bad choice, and forward (or right) being the positive one, where the road leads and where the journey ends. The action is acceptable though not, in my view, the masterpiece of choreography that some make it out to be. Bong and Kelly Masterson’s script also helps to raise Snowpiercer up, even if it gets more than a little derivative of other works before the end. Characters have their distinctive voices and, in line with my above warning on accepting the fairy tale nature of the film, helps to add greatly to the atmosphere of a world where low lying peasants are on the same train as upper class toffs. Musically it could be a little better, with Marco Beltrami seemingly on the wrong end of what looks like only a moderately sized budget.
Some brief spoiler talk follows.
-Like I said, I disliked the ending a bit, finding it a bit too corny, Truman Show-esque, or maybe The Matrix Reloaded. The “revelation” of how the train was set up to operate didn’t land as well as I would have liked, the whole thing being a bit too neat and tidy, stretching the limits of disbelief suspension as the characters more openly talked about the universe they were inhabiting (never a good idea in a film like this).
-The main point related to that is simply what a train like the Snowpiercer needs with an underclass. Curtis and his fellow underlings don’t appear to actually do anything on the train akin to a working class, and the implication that their existence was somehow propping up everybody else, all the way to the engine, didn’t really make sense to me at all. But there I go, trying to think logically about a film like this. They did draw attention to it though.
-Ed Harris’ Wilford really was The Architect in so many ways. I half expected him to start dropping the words “ergo” and “vis-a-vis” into his dialogue after a while. After so much build up to get to him, I was fairly let down by that. Also, does he just live in that one room all the time?
-Tilda Swonton’s Mason was one of Snowpiercer’s better characters, and that was largely down to just how weird and out of place she was. It reminded me of Effie from The Hunger Games in some ways, insofar that the oddness is mostly visual as opposed to characterisation. Her end comes very suddenly, and that was a bit of a disappointment.
-Man, all those revellers in the upper carriages. Where is all the booze coming from? OK, I’m doing it again.
-The sub-plot about Yona and her clairvoyant abilities was dropped at some point and never revisited, a very strange thing. It seemed like it was going to be an important point worth exploring in depth at some point, but Bong never got round to it.
-Curtis’ monologue outside the engine room, on how he and his fellow survivors were forced to turn to cannibalism until a fever of self-sacrifice emerged from the likes of Gilliam, was beautifully handled, both haunting and engaging. The film lacked a really strong sense of horror until that point, and it’s probably one of Snowpiercer’s best moments.
-The very end was open ended of course, leaving the audience to its own interpretations as to how humanity will fare from now on. I suppose that will only be possible if there are more humans around somewhere though.
Snowpiercer’s uniqueness and fairy tale-esque make-up make it more than a little endearing, but it isn’t quite good enough, in my opinion, to justify the massive amounts of praise that it has received from some. It’s no masterpiece, because of the unhinged way the narrative progresses, the weak ending, the music and a few other flaws. But it features some great acting performances, some nice visuals and a strong central arc for its main character. Snowpiercer is a nice breath of fresh air for a genre that is frequently all too stale and dull, a film where the director and his team were willing to take a few risks and see what resulted. For that, it is to be praised. Just not too much.
(All images are copyright of CJ Entertainment and RADiUS-TWC).