In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I have not read the film’s bande dessinée inspiration, Le Transperceneige, by Jacques Lob, Jean-Marc Rochette, and Benjamin Legrand. I can only judge the film on its own merits, of which it is far from bereft. But iffy dialogue, characterization, major tonal inconsistency, and serious breaches in logic (as well as issues inherent in its own premise) hold it back from being all that its best moments promise.
Set in the near future of 2031, attempts at utilizing climate control in 2014 to head off global warming have failed disastrously, setting off an apocalyptic global ice age. What little remains of humanity is huddled in a never-ending train ride around the planet, their physical position and resultant privileges (those at the front live carefree lives of luxury and debauchery, those at the back in third world conditions) determined by the tickets they—or often, their ancestors—were able to afford. By the time of the opening, “tail-ender” Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) is preparing a revolt with his second-in-command Edgar (Jamie Bell) and father figure/mentor Gilliam (John Hurt), along with a small army of other passengers (including the likes of Octavia Spencer’s Tanya and Ewan Bremner’s Andrew), to seize the engine and take control of the train. Things, as always, do not quite go to plan.
It’s worth speaking first about what the movie does right, and that’s a great deal. Starting with director Bong Joon-ho, this film was my first experience with his work (including the likes of Memories of Murder, The Host and Mother) and his talent. His cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo’s is reason enough for the film’s success. It is, in the words of a fellow moviegoer, “2 hours of nothing but people walking towards and away from the camera” as a result of the trains’ cramped space. That the film manages to capture the claustrophobia of the situation is unsurprising. That it can, among other things, deliver several of the most visually impressive action sequences of the year so far (on a $39 million budget) in such an environment is a tremendous testament to its craft. Similarly, it’s worth noting that, the violence of Snowpiercer, however well-composed, is not glamorized in the slightest: even in the most impressive moments, the viewer never loses sight of the fact that the film depicts no great struggle between good and evil. It’s just a bunch of filthy people broken down into animals, slaughtering each other brutally to try and ensure their own survival.
Contributing in addition to these fights are individual moments showing the world and how it’s come to be. They have little to do with the larger plot but contribute immeasurably to the real story. A child born on the train seeing the sun for the first time; the genuine feeling of culture shock as the passengers reach the frontmost cars; the charcoal portrait representing one of the only triumphs the tail-enders will ever know; a group of ragtag rebels tearing into each other trying to get their hands on one of the last two cigarettes in existence; the glimpse of those few who tried to escape; and the New Year’s ‘Celebration’. It’s in these moments rather than any plot twist or climactic moment that the spirit of the movie truly lives. It is a tale of human perseverance—as well as the limits of its cruelty and ignorance— that shines brightly through. Had the entire piece lived up to such a standard, it would have had little competition for the title of my favorite film thus far this year (sorry, Lego Movie).
Equally essential to realizing this vision is the work of the actors, who put in some of their best work. In particular, even those unimpressed with Chris Evans’ understated nobility and charisma in his ongoing role as Captain America will surely be struck by his work here. He brings an incredible presence to what is an undeniably standard-issue role as Curtis. And when he finally gets a good conversation with Song Kang-ho’s Namgoong Minsu (who is the true costar, often captivating with his bizarre mix of desperation, ongoing mental collapse, and hope), he drives perhaps the most powerful scene so far this year. Similarly, the likes of Spencer’s mama bear Tanya and Go Ah-sung’s drug-addled Yona manage to elicit a surprising amount of pathos with what truly is very little to work with. The one character who is consistently given quality material is the Thatcher-esque Mason, comically inept ambassador of the elite, played by Tilda Swinton chewing scenery so voraciously as if she just came off a diet.
That lack of material to work with, however, is the first indication of the movies’ near-downfall. There is, astonishingly, exactly one singular non-static character in the entire film (a child in a non-speaking part who plays a minuscule role in the climax); with the rest either there is no character arc whatsoever, or any changes are simply the results of secrets revealed. Everyone ends as they began, and while that’s not a problem, in a movie that by the last act wants to be entirely about what everyone really desires, how far they’re willing to go to get it, how the society around them shapes those desires, and whether human nature can ever really change, that’s a damning flaw.
On a similar note, it’s worth acknowledging that the dialogue in the first 20-30 minutes or so can get bad. Really bad. Made for TV, straight-to-DVD bad. For example, a major early discussion between Curtis and Edgar, one that sets up a thread in regards to Curtis’ motivations goes something like this:
Edgar: Sooner or later, you’re going to have to take over the train.
Curtis: I’m no leader.
Edgar: You already are.
And that’s not even getting into the conversation with Namgoong Minsu—Namgoong Minsu, he’s in prison block? Yes, Namgoong Minsu, he’s a security specialist who’s quite incredibly important and they care about getting to him very much, everyone. Such bits, while eye-rolling, might not have stood out that much in your average blockbuster. But it’s an obvious, cringe-worthy departure from the focused intensity of the rest of the film.
A far greater problem lies in Snowpiercer’s structuring. Simply put, it wants to be far too many things at once. Is it a realistic, uncompromisingly brutal illustration of how far humans are willing to go to survive and throw off the shackles of oppression, an offbeat critique—notably reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s work, his name being dropped—of the lifestyles of the rich and eccentric, and their predilections towards thoughtlessly trampling others underfoot, or a straight-up Hollywood action thriller, complete with villainous monologue courtesy of Ed Harris’ Wilford? Evans’ and Swinton’s parts quite simply buckle under the improbability of belonging in the same movie, much less the same scenes. More effective pacing and scene transitions might have smoothed such issues over to an extent, but the script zig-zags between moments of jaw-dropping nihilistic horror and comic observations of the front-enders idling antics with the full expectation of the audience quite simply taking it all in stride. If it’s intentional, it doesn’t work the way it needed to.
Arguably even worse are the oddities, the outright screw-ups. So much of Snowpiercer is so very meticulously arranged, to a degree even comic book films like The Dark Knight can only watch in envy of. A huge proportion of throwaway lines and observations turn out to have titanic, game-changing repercussions down the line, repercussions that reflect the character motivations and the movies’ intended message in fascinating ways. Yet, for every one or two of those, there’s a moment of stunning, bone-headed stupidity. The somewhat realistic backdrop of the film is instantaneously undermined by the explicitly addressed and unexplained psychic capabilities of Yona. Messages from the front that continue long after their stated purpose are fulfilled, but serve no other purpose than creeping out the characters and the audience along with them. And, the entire scene with the fish and the men in the useless masks, who have apparently been standing in one place for eighteen years looking threatening doesn’t help. The idea of the catastrophically incompetent Mason being chosen to keep the lower class in line wounds the film as well. Like some of the dialogue mentioned earlier, these are issues that might have been largely forgiven in a lesser work.
The ultimate problem lying in wait at the end of everything, is that Snowpiercer never sticks the landing in moving from one moral to another. The brutality of the violence, the background of the tail-enders, the entire nature of Curtis’ character motivations, and the grand scheme at the heart of everything all revolves around upending audience expectations and getting them to question the nature of the class system of the train. Snowpiercer wants its viewers to wonder, if the inequalities of the divide between the upper and lower class are necessary. The unending struggle generated is the inevitable result of human nature. Abandoning it would lead to further chaos, and this is embodied in Wilford’s grand reveal that the tail-enders are kept alive as breeding cattle. Their children serve as labor to keep the life-sustaining train engine running eternally and the periodic uprisings are manufactured to keep the population docile and at manageable numbers. It’s mad, it’s unfair, it’s a system shown to be capable of breaking the minds of Curtis and Andrew’s unnamed child when they are offered a chance to improve their stations at the expense of others. But it’s the only way any of them, rich or poor alike, can live. It’s in principle a marvelous conceit, one that embodies all Snowpiercer’s thematic concerns and justifies the protagonist’s extreme final actions in annihilating the system altogether.
It’s also patently idiotic.
Throughout the film, it’s reinforced over and over again how fanatically, desperately, and understandably the front-enders are obsessed with total control, from food production to percentages of lower-class passengers slaughtered. No such group—presumably comprised of former billionaires and politicians—would conceivably arrange such a risky and unresolvable solution to resource management. Why not just fill up the back end with spare parts? Why not pool their considerable resources and design suits capable of moving about in the frozen wastes, so as to acquire the needed materials? If people really are needed, keep them in cages, brainwash them, install security cameras, throw passengers off the train while the rest are asleep to reinforce the upper-crusts power without wasting bullets or risking soldiers. Anything is better than actively encouraging the one situation that could possibly fuck the entire plan for ensuring the survival of humankind. Despite Wilford’s protestations, there’s nothing inherent in the closed system that demanded inequality. An equal lifestyle for all aboard could have been allowed had the slightest of thought been applied to finding anything other than the most needlessly sadistic, utterly doomed solution possible to the initial predicament.
The nature of the closed system additionally eliminates all political, geographic and cultural barriers barring social equality, preventing it from working as an allegory on any level. Had Wilford’s final speech focused purely on humankind’s predilection towards violence and dominance, it at least would have been consistent with the information previously presented to the audience. (Suggesting it to be how society functions and having designed the train to continue said society rather than allow total anarchy is implied.) Instead, his seductive speech is invalidated: the rich are actively malicious, capricious, hedonistic sociopaths driven by pseudo-religious fervor in their way of life, willful ignorance, and denial, and that they are very, very bad. It’s up to the good people to stop them no matter what it takes. The film’s key ideology isn’t bad, but in a post-Hunger Games movie landscape, it is not a particularly provocative one.
In the end, despite its many and considerable flaws, Snowpiercer is worth your money for its riveting performances, unique vision and scattered moments of brilliance. Despite its high-concept nature though, it might be best to try to turn off your brain as much as possible when trying to enjoy this particular journey.