There is a basic level of surreality you have to accept when you approach this movie, similar to when you watch a Terry Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet film. (I can’t believe it’s coincidence that one of the characters is named Gilliam.) There are things that happen that don’t necessarily make sense outside of a sort of dream logic. But if you can accept that, the experience is intense and rewarding.
Snowpiercer is gorgeous and disturbing and a bit heartbreaking. Just the way it was filmed was beautiful. Every car of the massive train has its own distinctive color palette and environment, which I loved. It goes from claustrophobic filth in the rear of the train to strangely 50s-esque, to technicolor futuristic to heartlessly gearpunk. And while there’s quite a bit of violence in the film, it’s brutal rather than titillating. People who get hit once with an ax go down and stay down. (Well, mostly.) Characters come out of the mid-film meat grinder utterly shell-shocked.
(And considering the movie I saw before this was Transformers 4, I appreciated the visual coherence among the complexity all the more.)
The plot for the movie sounds deceptively simple when summed up: Geoengineering that attempts to counter the undeniable threat of global climate change goes horribly wrong, throwing the world into a life-killing ice age. Humans take refuge on a massive train that is effectively a closed ecosystem that never ceases moving, making an entire circuit of all the continents once a year. There is a strict class system enforced with religious fervor, based on the original ticket bought by the passengers. The tail of the train is basically steerage, controlled brutally and fed on “protein cubes” with the cars becoming increasingly high class toward the engine. Curtis (Chris Evans) working with Gilliam (John Hurt) foments a rebellion and attempts to take control of the engine so they can demand equal treatment for those who live in the tail.
As you can imagine, this movie is very specifically about class, and about the way the poor are controlled, abused, and used by the wealthy. It’s also very much about the structures put in place by the wealthy in order to maintain that control—in this case to a Machiavellian, mind-bending degree. But the most pointed and brutal scenes of the movie are really the ones that involve children, both the way children are indoctrinated from an early age, and the way the children of the poor are ultimately meat for the gears of society.
The next time someone says that science fiction—nay, good science fiction—can’t or shouldn’t be political, I invite them to sit down and watch Snowpiercer. Then take a big swig from their swimming-pool-sized movie theater cup of shut-the-fuck-up.
I can’t begin to say how grateful I am that Bong Joon-ho dug in his heels and fought to keep his cut of the movie intact. If you’re one of those lucky people who live in a city where Snowpiercer is showing on its limited release, drop what you’re doing and go.
(For an excellent analysis of Snowpiercer as a movie about capitalism, see here.)
And a few SPOILERS now:
Tilda Swinton was bizarre and disturbing and almost unrecognizable in her role in this movie. And creepy, conniving, and spineless as a sycophantic lickspittle. She turned in the kind of quality performance that at this point is promised by her mere presence in a film. The entire cast was excellent, really.
But Chris Evans. Holy shit, Chris Evans. He managed to make a monolog that had all the promise of being a manpain cheese fest into something that turned my stomach. He was excellent. And the thing about the character he played, Curtis, is that he is an ultimately weak man who lacks conviction. He’s not the kind of character we commonly follow as the protagonist at the story. And at first, you think that he is the “reluctant leader hero-type” until you realize that the very reason he doesn’t want to be a leader is because he knows he’s weak. What conviction he has is a frail thing, and he at many times is only propelled forward by the shear force of his anger or the conviction of his fellows, not because he has any real sort of inner strength.
And when he reveals at the end that he not only engaged in cannibalism in the first desperate months of the train ride, but was one of the people committing murder and stealing children to do so, and then when Gilliam turned him around and he still lacked the conviction to make a similar sacrifice… well, suddenly the way that Willford almost talks him into accepting his “destiny” makes all too much sense. He’s a weak man who has ultimately been a pawn between Gilliam and Willford all along, and it’s not until the very end when he realizes the true horror of why children are taken from the tail (hint: it’s not soylent green) that he finally discovers a store of inner strength. His redemption is last minute, and total, and Chris Evans just sold it.
I also want to say that I love the little cultural touches that came in with live on the train. Inanimate objects that had all been used up (such as cigarettes and bullets) were termed as extinct. And the entire horrific meat grinder before the water treatment car was just amazing for that. The entire scene almost pauses when it’s announced they’re approaching the bridge that marks the successful completion of another one year round trip, and there’s this moment of strange celebration before the killing resumes. And when a conductor announces that there’s a collision coming, the fight just stops until the all clear is given. There were markers of alien culture like that all through the film, and I appreciated those things immensely.
There is too much good stuff in this movie to wade fully into it here. I hope that even if you can’t see it in the theater, you’ll be able to catch it once it’s out on video or streaming. And then we can hopefully meet and have a beer and just scream at each other a bit about the fantastic depth of Bong Joon-ho’s vision. I’ll have to see it twenty more times before I feel like I might have caught everything.