Dystopian fiction in film is nowhere near as well represented as it could be. For every good movie it feels like there are a dozen bad ones that are often as dysfunctional and punishing to watch as the societies they portray. Thankfully Snowpiercer, the (mostly) English-language debut of Bong Joon Ho, is one of the better examples of the genre on film, and while there might be a great many bad dystopian movies, they are worth enduring if, every so often, we get one that’s as good as this.
Adapted from the French-language graphic novel Le Transperceneige (by Jacques Lob, Jean-Marc Rochette, and Benjamin Legrand), Snowpiercer tells of a future where an attempt to fix Global Warming has instead brought about another Ice Age. Unable to survive outside, the last remnants of humanity live out their days aboard a huge train that travels the frozen globe over and over. While anyone who’s travelled by rail will tell you that a first-class seat at the front is infinitely superior to enduring the standing-room-only Hell of the rear carriages, Snowpiercer takes this to another level. The elites at the front of the train live in opulent splendour, while those at the rear live in squalor with barely enough room to stand. This division of wealth has become the source of much tension, and as the film begins, the passengers at the rear of the train are planning an uprising in a bid to take over the front of the train.
Already a huge hit in its native Korea, Snowpiercer became the subject of some controversy earlier this year when the Weinstein Company wanted cut twenty minutes from the picture for Western audiences. Thankfully the film was released uncut, and watching it now, it’s difficult to see where these cuts could have been made. The film’s 125-minute run time goes by with the speed of a locomotive. Taking place almost entirely inside the train, Snowpiercer is a lean story that maintains a sense of constant motion as we follow the characters journey onwards through the carriages. There is also a continual sense of tension and claustrophobia throughout, leading to short outbursts of violence as the passengers from the rear clash with those from the front. The film does not shy away from being graphic, but it does offset the oppressiveness of its environment with an off-kilter sense of humour. One moment in particular sees the inhabitants of the train stop mid-fight to wish each other a happy new year. It’s a bizarre moment that, while being funny, says a lot about what daily life is like for the inhabitants of the train.
It’s the train’s inhabitants, or the people that play them at any rate, that are the film’s greatest strength, with a cast that is almost as globe-spanning as the tracks on which the titular train runs. Chris Evans’s turn as revolutionary leader Curtis is not only a clean shave (or two) and a hat away from Steve Rogers, but an entire performance as well. Opposite him is Tilda Swinton, relishing every scene she gets as Mason, the snooty leader of the elite. Also on hand to round out the British contingent with fine performances are John Hurt, Ewen Bremner, and Jamie Bell. Hailing from Korea, both Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung (both Bong alumni, having previously starred in The Host) turn in fine performances. Finally there’s Octavia Spencer (another American) and Alison Pill (from Canada) that round out the main cast. Snowpiercer not only has the prestige of having a great international cast, but also one of the best all-around, with everyone giving truly great performances and understanding how their role fits into the wider story. For a film so much about the divisions between people, the film’s cast proves just how good something can be when everyone works together.
It is this division between people – especially those based on class – that is the main theme in Snowpiercer. While at times the rhetoric can seem a bit heavy-handed, this is still not a film that spoon feeds its audience, seeking instead to engage and encourage them into finding their own answers. Taken literally, the film may seem ridiculous to some, but Snowpiercer is not a literal movie. It’s an allegorical one that, while being set in the future, makes important points about the here and now. One of the main themes in dystopian fiction is that the society in which these stories take place has usually arisen because someone in the past tried to make things better and how the best of intentions can lead us to the worst of places. These stories and settings act as a mirror, reflecting back the troubles of our own world. Snowpiercer does this with a delicacy that is rarely seen nowadays. One moment in particular sees Curtis reflect upon the actions in his life that have led him to become the person he is. This is the scene that sums up the film best, because it shows that the most important truths – the ones that can change everything – are also the hardest won. Snowpiercer is not always an easy film to watch, and it demands much of its audience, but in doing so, it reminds you of what the best fiction (of any kind) should be: progressive, intelligent, diverse, and above all else, constantly moving forward.