After many years of widely-publicized development and audience anticipation, Bong Joon-ho’s fifth feature Snowpiercer arrives amidst a media storm that has devoted as many column inches to the director’s battles with his American distributor, Radius-TWC, over final cut as it has to the film’s actual qualities. Having tackled social satire with Barking Dog’s Never Bite (2000), police procedural with Memories of Murder (2003), monster mayhem with The Host (2006), and domestic tragedy with Mother (2009), serial genre-hopper Bong here utilizes science fiction as a means of exploring social oppression on a grand scale. Bong has recently reached a truce with Harvey Weinstein which will allow his film to be shown uncut in the United States, although the initially planned wide release strategy has been cut-back in favor of select markets as Radius-TWC feel that the director’s vision is not commercially viable. Serious sci-fi can be a tough sell at the box office, yet it is hard to see how any distributor could lack confidence in Snowpiercer as Bong’s futuristic adventure is truly immersive cinema, a state that it achieves without the need of the dreaded 3D format. Taking place entirely on the titular vehicle, a train that travels around an Earth that has been rendered uninhabitable due to global warming, this is a genuinely ambitious blockbuster that balances excitement with ideas, science with humanity, and stunning CGI with detailed production design. Backed by South Korean entertainment empire CJ Entertainment to the tune of $40 million and filmed mostly in English at Barrandov Studios in the Czech Republic with a cast of familiar faces headed by Chris Evans of Captain America (2011) fame, Snowpiercer has all the trappings of a Hollywood extravaganza but summary of its streamlined premise belies the complexities that make it so much more than an expensive bid for global multiplex supremacy.
Adapted from the French graphic novel series Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette, the narrative takes place in the year 2031 as the world is in the throes of a second Ice Age and what remains of mankind thunders across the frozen landscape on an annual cycle. However, all is not equal aboard the train: the upper classes live in luxury at the front of the train where their whims are regularly catered to, while those at the other end of the social-economic spectrum are restricted to the rear, where they lead lives of drudgery and barely survive on gelatinous protein bars. However, a revolution is brewing, organized by reluctant leader Curtis (Evans) with guidance from his disabled mentor Gilliam (John Hurt). His ragtag team includes the fiercely loyal Edgar (Jamie Bell) and single mother Tanya (Octavia Spencer), whose young son has been taken away by the armed guards for an unspecified purpose, while they need to free Korean security expert Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) from the prison car if they are to make any significant progress. The train is controlled by its creator, Wilfred (Ed Harris), but as with any ruler, he delegates the dirty work to others, which means that Curtis’ main adversaries are Mason (a grotesque Tilda Swinton) and brutal enforcer Franco the Elder (a suitably imposing Vlad Ivanov). After overcoming the guards and making a deal with Namgoong – he requires a hit from a hallucinogenic drug for every door that he opens – the revolutionaries steadily work their way to the front, taking in a range of environments from a sushi bar, to a greenhouse, to Disney-style classroom, to a hedonistic nightclub, and, eventually, the engine room, with both sides racking up casualties due to bursts of desperate conflict.
Progressing through these varied carriages necessitates Bong and production designer Ondrej Nekvasil to make changes in visual palette while maintaining tonal consistency with the urgency of the mission providing the glue that binds these shifts. The exposition section, which is confined to the rear of the train, draws on holocaust imagery while the revolutionaries later hurtle through comparative utopias characterized by calm or decadence. Garish satire gives way to a blazing shoot-out in the classroom segment as a lesson in Showpiercer propaganda from Allison Pill’s excitable teacher is suddenly interrupted by an attempt to curtail the revolution at mid-point, although Bong is not afraid to dial the pacing back down prior to the climax to allow characters time to expound on nature of human existence or to recall repressed traumatic memories. Snowpiercer is packed with symbolism that makes its mode of critique seem a little heavy handed for much of its running time, but final reel revelations about relationships between key players in the train’s social order provide deeper consideration about the manner in which rebellions arise, while forcing the previously single-minded Curtis to make a split-second decision between destiny and choice. However, Bong remains a propulsive storyteller and does not allow the film’s philosophical underpinnings to lead to full-blown tangents: Marco Beltrami’s fine score helps to momentum during the lengthy monologues, as does a near-constant sense of motion that is aided by cutaways to the outside world with the train close to flying off the rails but always staying on course, much like the trajectory of the film itself. Snowpiercer is a thrilling triumph from a brilliant filmmaker who is not afraid to push himself or his audience into challenging territory and a rare visual spectacle that will have no trouble standing up to repeat viewings.