I know it is a cliché, but I must say this; “Snowpiercer” is something we do not come across often in the movie theaters nowadays. This is a smart, compelling science fiction film which can intrigue us with its futuristic setting at the beginning and then pull our attention into its thrilling journey packed with interesting sights until it arrives at the powerful finale where we come to care about not only what has happened during the characters’ journey but also what will happen next at their arriving point. You may have recognize lots of inherent holes and flaws in its track, but the movie confidently pushes its premise throughout its running time, and it goes all the way to its inevitable destination as intended from the beginning while deftly dialing our expectation level up and down in its each compartment.
The background of the movie sounds pretty unrealistic to say the least, but it looks fascinating none the less. In 2014, the global climate disruption became far worse than before(it may not be that soon, but that will happen within several years if we keep neglecting the current situation), and the nations around the world jointly attempted to lower the global temperature through spraying a newly developed chemical gas in the atmosphere all over the Earth. The temperature was surely lowered as hoped, but the result was an apocalyptic catastrophe; the Ice Age returned, and the whole world became a frozen snowy hell to almost every organism on the earth.
While the human civilization had fallen and lots of people were frozen to death at that time, there were a group of people fortunate enough to get the chance to survive through the train belonging to an unorthodox billionaire named Wilford(Ed Harris). Right before the Ice Age began, he laid his special railroad line all over the continents(he even put the bridge between Russia and Alaska), and his train has been running on the line all the time thanks to its high-tech engine which has never been stopped since the catastrophe. I do not know how his railroad can be maintained without any serious problem for 17 years of snow and ice, but his train surely looks magnificent as it mightily and rapidly pulls its long, long lines of compartments along its track. Even when it comes across the ice/snow blocks on its way, it just penetrates through them using its sheer power and speed and then goes on and on while completing its world tour every year.
While Wilford has occupied the engine/head compartment since the people took refuge in his train, his employers have maintained the strict class system within their ark, and the passengers get as much as they paid. The first-class passengers occupy the most luxurious compartments in the front, and the economy class passengers are the next in line, and the free passengers, who can be regarded as the 99% class of the train, are stuck in the tail compartments with little support. It is utterly freezing outside(it takes less than 10 minutes to make a bare arm completely frozen like a rock), and the tail compartment people have no choice but accept their shabby social position within this micro-society which may be the last flame of humanity now.
In such a ghetto-like condition, there is always a chance of rebellion among these people, and it is about to happen again as before. Curtis, played by Chris Evans in his grittiest and grimiest performance, is a young rebellious man determined to try as hard as possible, and he has been looking for a good chance while checking several aspects of his plan. All he and others have to do is moving forward along the compartments and then taking over the engine compartment in the opposite, but it is not an easy job at all because 1) they do not know well about what they will come across beyond their compartments and 2) Wilford and his second-in-command Mason(Tilda Swinton) are not easy matches to defeat for many reasons including their merciless enforcers.
Even before making their first move, the possibility of defeat is clear to everyone including Curtis and his aging mentor Gilliam(John Hurt), who has been a de facto moral leader respected by everyone in the tail compartments. But it looks like they have a pretty good chance in this time; Curtis happens to get the information that there is a security technique expert named Namgoong Min-su(Song Kang-ho, who was the lead actor in “Memories of Murder”(2003) and “The Host”(2006)), and he can quickly unlock the gate of each compartment for them. After released from the prison compartment by Curtis, Min-su joins in Curtis’ plan on the condition that he can take his young daughter Yona(Ko Ah-seong) along with him while getting two pieces of hallucinogenic drug named Kronol for his job at every gate.
The movie has been advertised as an action movie, and there is indeed an impressive sequence where two opposing groups brutally clash with each other within one narrow space, but, to our delight, the movie turns out to be far more than that as Curtis and others desperately advance through the compartments one by one. The movie hurls us into a bloody mayhem at one point, and then it amazes us with what is inside some of the compartments, and then it ambushes us with more unexpected things in its compartments. The movie feels uneven and jarring at times because of that, but, it surprisingly creates some sort of harmony from that under the director Bong Joon-ho’s confident direction and offbeat sensibility, and the movie throws in a surprising moment of humor even when the characters are facing the matter of life and death. The movie invests considerable attention to its small but intriguing post-apocalyptic world and its colorful characters, and I was particularly amused by how protein bars handed to the tail compartment people are manufactured; when the recipe is revealed, Soylent Green will not look that bad to you in comparison.
The movie is based on the French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige” by Jacque Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette. I have not read it yet, but I can say that Bong Joon-ho and his co-screenplay writer Kelly Masterson(he previously made an impressive debut with Sidney Lumet’s last work “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”(2007)) made a darkly engaging SF thriller drama from the original graphic novel. While there is the constant urgency driving its plot and characters, it sometimes slows its pace for letting us identify with the characters and be absorbed in their dystopian world, and the story never feels dragged even when it takes some rest with the characters for a moment. The more we advance with them, the more we feel that the stake is high for everyone involved in the conflict inside the train, and we also come to see that not every character is completely safe in this tumultuous situation as the movie ruthlessly rolling them on its unpredictable plot.
The movie also takes its time while looking around the interior of the train with fascination. Every compartment has its own function, and one of the most amusing sights is the school for the children of the front compartments. In their bright, pleasant classroom, the children eagerly participate in the lesson without questioning anything(Alison Pill is morbidly cheerful as their pregnant teacher), and we get some background history behind Wilford’s train through their old-fashioned education video.
And then the story becomes more about quest rather than action as it gets closer to the engine compartment, and the movie provokes certain questions which have been asked in its senior dystopian SF fictions. Is survival a greater good above everything including morality? Is it worthwhile to be inhuman for the better chance of preserving humanity? They say we human beings are capable of anything, but can we accept the cost of survival and move on no matter how big it is? I do not dare to tell you how these questions are presented at the arrival point of the story, but I must say it has been quite a while since I really felt the temptation growing inside the character facing the crucial moment of a difficult decision in the movie. None of the available options is an easy one; any choice is bound to be followed by its own weighty consequence, and the final scene can be interpreted as optimistic or pessimistic depending on your view.
This is Bong Joon-ho’s first feature film made outside South Korea, and he proves here that he can work competently with the international cast and crew. His cinematographer Hong Kyeong-pho does a terrific job of providing different ambiences along the storyline, and Steve M. Choe’s editing is sharp and efficient, and Marco Beltrami’ score is solid while never stepping out of the line. You may complain that its CGIs showing the exterior of the train look relatively cheaper than what you see from big Hollywood blockbusters, but it effectively serves the story and the actions inside it like any good special effects should do. We have no problem with accepting the fictional reality inside the movie, so we can believe the characters are really on the train going through some tricky parts of its line, and we get an ample amount of thrill and excitement as a result.
The cast is excellent, for they amplify their mostly simple roles with their talents and presences. I must confess that I had underestimated Chris Evans before watching his electrifying performance in “Puncture”(2011), and I am confirmed here again here that he can do a lot more than playing Captain America. There is a haunting moment when Curtis reveals his dark side to other character, and Evans is captivating to watch as conveying us the unspeakable horror remaining inside his character’s heart only with his performance.
The rest of the cast are equally memorable in their respective roles. Tilda Swinton gloriously embraces her despicable character with the attitude of mean British headmistress, and she is fearless as usual in throwing herself into the hammy side of her character. Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, and Ewen Bremner are some of more distinctive characters in the tail compartments, and John Hurt, a wonderful British actor who has always been suitable for playing a shabby intellectual since “Midnight Express”(1978) and “1984”(1984), instantly draws our attraction whenever he appears with remaining limbs. As the Colonel Kurtz/Oz the Great and Powerful of the movie, Ed Harris is as good as expected during his eventual appearance around the finale, and Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-seong hold their own places while getting along well with their fellow performers(some of their dialogues are Korean, but the translator equipment comes handy to other characters in the train, so we can accept the scenes where one character speaks in Korean while the other speaking in English).
This year has been particularly interesting for South Korean audiences because three of their leading film directors attempted to make movies outside their usual territory. While Bong Joon-ho was making “Snowpiercer”, Kim Jee-woon made a pulpy B-action film with Arnold Schwartzenegger in “The Last Stand”(2013) as he wanted, and Park Chan-wook made a tense coming-of-age drama in “Stoker”(2013), which is as stylishly disturbing as his previous films. The degree of success is various in each case, but all prove that they are skillful directors who can wield their styles and talents even when making movies outside South Korea with a different language.
I admired Bong Joon-ho’s works for many reasons since I became a little more serious movie audience, and one of them is the unpredictability in his choice. He made me both laugh and cringe in a deadpan black comedy “Barking Dogs Never Bite”(2000), and then he played me like piano in his great country thriller film “Memories of Murder”(2003), and then he surprised me with monster film “The Host”(2006), and then he came back to another country thriller “Mother”(2009).
With “Snowpiercer”, he made another surprising choice, and he successfully solidifies his status again as one of great South Korean directors. The movie is as good as it can be as a science fiction story, and its problematic aspects on the story level can easily be overlooked while you are entertained by its wonderful sights. I still wonder about how the hell the train in the movie can run so fast and so long for more than 10 years, but, folks, how can possibly our hearts not be excited by the sight of this fantastic train zipping around the snowy post-apocalyptic world, especially if it is loaded with many things to admire and enjoy?
Sidenote(2013/08/06): I heard later that the movie was acquired by the Weinstein company for the distribution in US, UK, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia. According to this news, the company will probably butcher it by trimming at least 20 minutes. Please check the running time when the movie is released at the local theaters near your place, and avoid it if it is a truncated version shorter than 126-min. To be frank with you, there is nothing to cut in the film even though it is not perfect.