by Grant Cronin
I first watched 2013’s Snowpiercer a couple of years ago after some persuasion from a friend. I was told Captain America talks about eating people in it. No, really. The fact that was what sold it to me probably says more about myself than the film..
I have to say Snowpiercer took me by complete surprise; the action, the plot, the cast, the mere concept of the movie – it should not work – but it does, and in my opinion, it is very much a modern genre classic. After a few years to digest and having the opportunity to revisit Bong Joon-ho’s (The Host, Mother) science fiction thriller recently, I thought it would be fitting to write my thoughts on this refreshing and inventive cult hit. Although a Korean produced film, the vast majority of the feature is filmed in English so those who fear subtitles need not worry.
Snowpiercer is an adaption of Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette’s 1982 French language graphic novel Le Transperceneige. It was reported that director Bong Joon-ho started reading the novel and finished it the same day, standing in the same spot in the store when he first came across the story. It’s difficult not to be captivated by this story, of a grisly yet strangely hopeful world. There are even reports the story is being developed into a television adaptation. In the film, we are presented with a post-apocalyptic Earth in the year 2031 (don’t click away just yet) where climate change scientist’s worst fears have been realised (please, don’t go!) and we are in the midst of an inhospitable new ice age (probably lost half my readers there). We later find out this ice age was in fact, caused by scientist’s attempts to prevent climate change. But this is not your typical Hollywood-type post-apocalyptic thrill-ride. The new ice age has obliterated all life – except from those that found sanctuary on The Rattling Ark, a enormous, perpetually-moving train with a strict class structure that navigates the planet on a yearly cycle. The higher your social standard and presumably the bigger your bank balance, the closer you are to the front. Elites at the front live in luxury, the maligned “scum” at the back live in squalor. Smelling that social commentary yet?
It is in the back of the train where we pick up at the beginning of the film with Curtis Everett (Chris Evans), Edgar (Jamie Bell) and Gilliam (John Hurt) in the throes of planning a revolt that would see the back overthrow the front. They plan to fight to the front, confront the chief of the train, the mysterious Minister Wilford (Ed Harris), and supplant the merciless class system.
Can I just take a moment to highlight the cast – upon my first watch and during this revisit I was shocked at the calibre of the stars that were featured; Evans, Bell, Hurt and Harris as mentioned above are joined by Song Kang-ho (The Host, The Show Must Go On) as Namgoong Minsu, a specialist who designed the train’s security features and Tilda Swinton (We Need To Talk About Kevin, Michael Clayton) as Deputy Minister Mason, Wilfred’s right hand and spokeswoman for the elite front passengers. They ham it up and they do it well. The cast list is a testament to the pull of the story and the vision of Bong Joon-ho.
The film is dripping in revolutionary meaning, allegories and social commentary but there is absolutely nothing stopping the casual viewer enjoying it as a straight-up action film. The action scenes are inventive by the way they are constrained by the close-quarters of the train, with a particular scene played out in darkness serves as the visceral high-point for me. Each carriage of the train that Everett proceeds through provides him with a new challenge to his uprising and presents the viewer with another section of society to dissect. It is an easy argument to make that every carriage traversed is a reflection of Earth and humanity’s current state. Everett might strike you as the obvious choice as the film’s principal protagonist but it is Namgoong who is the real hero of the story; he doesn’t want to take control of the train, he wants to liberate humanity from it’s seemingly never-ending journey. The grandeur of this film is only outpaced by its improbability. Snowpiercer can be taken at face-value and it is still great fun to watch but if you scratch the surface you discover a deeper political meaning within a scathing critique of our modern world.
This dystopian thriller has the charm of a fairy tale or a children’s story but the horror and humour of a truly great genre piece; a film that actively sidesteps tropes and clichés and reaps the benefits for doing so. It is an engaging plot that only tails off in its conclusion. It is hard to fault the endeavour of this film and all of those involved, even it was not executed absolutely perfectly. Although hard to come by due limited home video releases, if you do get the opportunity to catch Snowpiercer I wholeheartedly hope you do.
Have you had the chance to ride Snowpiercer? What did you think? Thanks for reading and comment below!
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