Directed By: Bong Joon-ho
Written By: Bong Joon-ho, Kelly Masterson
Starring: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Go Ah-sung, Jamie Bell, John Hurt
MPAA: Rated R
“What does steak taste like again? I had it once, but I can’t remember.”
Such is life in the tail end of the Snowpiercer, a socially segregated train that acts as humanity’s sole habitat. It’s been 17 years since the Earth has frozen over–the result of a global warming counter-experiment that failed miserably–and survivors have taken refuge in a dramatically divided environment. Like all other methods of mass transport, the wealthiest people reside close to the engine, the working class take shelter somewhere in the middle, and the poorest of the poor…well…you can guess where they are.
The problem, though, is that the tail end of the train is in shambles. This isn’t economy class, it’s an underground railroad without a destination. The people living in the caboose are malnourished, beaten, and berated. They occasionally have their children stolen from them, are forced to eat gooey protein rations, and are forbidden to leave their designated zones. When they act up, they are punished–one poor soul who decides to cause a ruckus has his arm frozen before it’s shattered into a million tiny pieces.
But they aren’t slaves, at least not in a conventional sense. For the most part, these tail-dwellers have no obvious purpose. They don’t work for the more fortunate citizens aboard the Snowpiercer–they simply exist, but for some reason must be treated like criminals. As one authoritarian character explains in the beginning of the film, it’s just the way that things are.
This doesn’t sit well with Curtis (Chris Evans), a brooding tail inhabitant in the midst of executing a rebellious takeover. With help from Gilliam (John Hurt), the elder of this particular tribe, he pulls together a band of revolutionaries to carry forth a mission to the train engine, run my a mysterious God-like man named Wilford. What they come to discover throughout their adventure is mindblowing and heartbreaking.
The first thing I noticed about Snowpiercer is how open the film feels, despite the claustrophobic nature of the environment. This is director Bong Joon-ho’s second sci-fi outing, after The Host (2006). At this point in the game, there’s no denying that the man has a knack for visual flair. The entire film in set inside a train–at no point did I notice an obvious set piece–but damn it if it doesn’t feel like an entire world in it’s own right.
A lot of this is due to the varied nature of the separate cars that Curtis and his rag-tag team travel through to get to the mystical engine room. The tail end is grungy and dirty; a slum on steroids. Past that, there’s an industrial zone that exhibits steampunk sensibilities. Environments get more bizarre as they get closer to the front of the train–exposing them may veer somewhere near spoiler territory, so I’ll keep my mouth shut–but let me say this: for all the social inequality and blatant segregation, things are never boring aboard the Snowpiercer. At times, things reach Tim Burton-levels of optical obscurity, and I say that as a compliment.
Even if Snowpiercer was solely about the environment, the film would be a success, but Bong Joon-ho ups the ante with a slew of excellent characters who are almost as equally compelling. As Curtis, Chris Evans makes an effective hero, Tilda Swinton plays an extravagant First-Class Minister, and John Hurt brings plenty of gravitas in his role as the wise elder. But the real standouts are Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung as a drug-addicted father-daughter team who have the ability to open gates between cars. They have excellent chemistry (they played a father and daughter in The Host as well), and Song Kang-ho is particularly amusing with his snide, often condescending dialogue–usually exclusively directed at Curtis.
It’s not all roses, though. The rest of the main supporting cast, played by Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer, don’t really have much to do except simply be there. We learn more about them through standard exposition, but they do feel a little tacked-on at times. Considering how excellent everything else it, though, it’s a permissible offense.
There are big ideas at play here–something that Bong Joon-ho clearly doesn’t shy away from. With The Host, he used a classic monster-movie framework as social commentary on international relations, but Snowpiercer has grander ambitions. There isn’t simply a government cover-up happening here…the very essence of humanity is what’s at stake. A grand social experiment, extreme socio-political speculation–call it what you want, but Snowpiercer is a powerful experience. It made me think, both throughout watching the film and well after I had seen it. Maybe it’s too extreme to be considered a parable, but maybe not. That really depends on your worldview. But I can attest to this–I was moved.
Snowpiercer is visually stunning and dramatically effective–the kind of film that keeps you guessing, only to have your theories proven completely wrong by the time the credits roll. It’s a wholly original experience that evokes the best dystopian science-fiction without succumbing to the depths of obvious homage. It sets a new standard for this type of filmmaking, and movies in the future will undoubtedly be compared to this one.
Snowpiercer is available for rental on several streaming services, including Amazon Instant Video.