The year is 2031, thanks to a failed experiment designed to counteract the effects of Global Warming Planet Earth has plunged into a new Ice Age. All life on the outside world is now deemed extinct. Even though the outside world ceases to exist, a microcosm of society continues to thrive inside an elaborately constructed train powered by a perpetual motion engine.
The train, designed and overlooked by a so-called benevolent entrepreneur named Wilford, is a closed ecosystem divided into economic classes. Up front, you have the well-to-do socialites, who have access to health care, fine cuisine, schooling and such. Meanwhile, towards the drab-grey industrial back end, the impoverished and overpopulated lower class society are treated like rodents.
Collectively treated as ungrateful scum who defy the wisdom of the great and powerful Wilford. They survive off of gelatinous protein bars and are forced to watch as high ranking officials come in the middle of the night and snatch their children away at Wilford's command. If they so much as stand up to Wilford's tyranny, then they are punished in cruel and inhumane ways.
One lone rebel, Curtis (Chris Evans) decides that he has had all he can stand, and he can't stand no more. Rallying together his fellow oppressed brethren, they organise and execute a vicious revolt against the name of Wilford and his Governing Officials. Together, a band of unlikely heroes press forward from carriage to carriage, facing numerous hurdles along the way, all in the hope of taking control of the train.
Adapted from a relatively obscure French Graphic Novel, Snowpiercer marks the English Language Debut of South Korean Director Joon Ho-Bong. Despite the controversy surrounding a proposed Harvey Weinstein edited version for mainstream appeal, Bong's trademark genre-blending style remains in-tact and untouched.
The post-apocalyptic setup serves as a backdrop. The film is ultimately an allegory for the human condition. The logistics of how such a train could exist are dubious, to say the least, but thankfully Bong does not spend time focusing on such logistics. Instead, he concerns himself with the simmering tensions aboard the train. Dividing the train by economic status allows Director Bong to depict key evolutionary stages of humanity. From the primal beginnings of the desperate and savagely brutal have-nots in the back to the birth of modern day society as we know it. Snowpiercer thrives on the socio-political tensions boiling at the surface.
Totalitarianism is a fundamental theme in Snowpiercer. Best exemplified in a brilliant scene involving Allison Pill as a state-employed elementary teacher. She feeds her students blatant state-approved vocational lies designed with the purpose of worshipping Wilford as if he were the second coming of Christ. Her eyes flutter with orgasmic glee as she plays the piano and leads her students in merry tune about the grimmest of subjects. Effectively brainwashing them in the process. It's this brilliant little moment that perfectly encaptures the "Cult of Personality" aura running throughout the train.
And as for our heroes? Well, they're left to look in dismay. Chris Evans plays defacto group leader Curtis as defiant yet reluctant. He harbours a deep-seeded vengeful hatred squarely directed at Wilford, yet his guilt-ridden past haunts him. Evans, best known for Captain America, turns in a brave and fearless performance. However, it's his final haunting soliloquy where his devastating past is finally revealed that nails home just how strong of a performer Evans is capable of being.
Among the group is Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and Andrew (Ewen Bremner), who are searching for their recently snatched children. Also among the group is Namgoong Minsoo (Song Kang-Ho) and his drug addicted daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko). Namgoong is the trains chief security expert and the group enlist him so he can open doors between the carriages. Although, he too has his own motivations for wanting to help their movement. Song Kang-Ho is a known regular to anyone who is a fan of South Korean cinema, and once again he turns in tremendous work. Hopefully, this will be a launching pad for bigger things in the future here in the West.
In the background of all of this, you also have Curtis' elderly and grizzled mentor Gilliam (a direct nod to Terry Gilliam) played with tremendous empathy by screen veteran John Hurt. Meanwhile, on the opposing side is a barely recognizable Tilda Swinton sporting a thick yorkshire accent as the deliciously evil Mason. A radically oppressing Margarette Thatcher type, whose blind devotion to Wilford is disturbingly unwavering. It's fair to say that Director Bong has assembled an impressive smorgasbord of talent, with each of them firing on all cylinders.
Considering most of the action takes place in the tight, claustrophobic constraints of the train, cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong keeps the action aggressive and dynamic. The centerpiece axe-fight that pits the rebels against a band of mask-wearing axe-wielding middle class henchmen evokes memories of Oldboy or even Zack Snyder's 300. And yet, this blood soaked axe fight set amongst the drab industrial greys of the locomotive steel is juxtaposed by an awe-worthy moment in the next carriage as our heroes come across a full-fledged working aquarium. One of the brilliant joys of Snowpiercer is that shared sense of discovery. The less said about the train, the better the experience.
Perhaps its only major flaw is that the story is a little too familiar when all is said and done. Certainly, it owes a debt of gratitude to the likes of Brazil, 1984 and Animal Farm. To which Director Bong does not shy from acknowledging. Also, there are a couple of moments that are perhaps too jarring for their own good. Be it ill-judged humour or a loss in translation, but none the less, some of these moments stick out like a sore thumb.
By the halfway point, so much has been packed in, and yet it never becomes an over-abundance. Snowpiercer is one of those films that could theoretically be dissected and discussed over countless essays for years to come. There is so much to say about it, and yet, for the purpose of avoiding spoilers, I have barely scratched upon the surface.
Prior to its release here in the West, the Weinstein brothers wanted to cut twenty minutes from the film and add expository voice-over. To do so would have been a crime. Snowpiercer, like Blade Runner thirty years before, isn't as inaccessible to audiences as one might think. It knows exactly what it is, exactly what it wants to be, and exactly how to show it. It may lack the polish of Blade Runner, but it makes up for it with sheer grit. Snowpiercer is that rare breed of Sci-Fi Blockbuster. It treats its audience with respect for their intelligence. It also just happens to be one hell of an exhilarating ride from beginning to end.