Snowpiercer, the first English language film of Korean director Bong Joon-ho, is a train ride like none you’ve ever seen before that takes us car by car through the layers of dystopian society. Based off of a French graphic novel called Le Transperceneige, it’s an innovative story involving classic societal difficulties like class struggles, corrupt leadership, and an unraveling of morals and principles when it comes to human survival. This film stands out amongst other sci-fi films thanks to Bong’s unique style of visuals and storytelling that is not often seen in English language films, making it one of the most enjoyable, as well as critically acclaimed, sci-fi movies to come out in recent months.
The year is 2031. The world has plunged itself into an ice age due to a government experiment gone wrong in which they tried to control global warming. Curtis (Chris Evans), his friend Edgar (Jamie Bell), and a wise man named Gilliam (John Hurt) are amongst a large group of lower class train inhabitants who are forced to live in the bleak tail end of a huge train that circles the globe indefinitely thanks to a perpetual-motion engine designed by the all mighty Wilford. No one really knows who Wilford is except for a select few people, but those in the front end of the train hail him like a god. After a not so welcome visit by Mason (Tilda Swinton) and her guards who have come to remind the unfortunate tail enders of their “place,” and Tanya’s (Octavia Spencer) son is taken away for unspecified purposes, Curtis decides it’s a good time to execute the rebellion they’ve been planning for quite some time. The objective is to make their way to the front of the train and get to Wilford. They enlist the help of a Korean engineer named Namgoong (Song Kang-ho) and his daughter, Yona (Ko Ah-sung) who are both hooked on a drug called Kronol, which turns out to not only be addictive, but has explosive properties as well. The rest of the movie plays out with surprise after surprise with the contents and environment of each car of the train being discovered for the first time by our tail end rebels.
The story is overall pretty dark but Bong, as he usually does, manages to incorporate a strange kind of humor into the film. At one point, the group enters a classroom full of children who are being taught to worship Wilford and the train he built, all the while this ridiculous propaganda is coming from the mouth of a seemingly pleasant pregnant teacher (Alison Pill). To everyone’s surprise, though, she can wield a gun just as well as she can brainwash the minds of small children. Some of the things that happen in this movie are laughable, but not in a bad way. It’s kind of a reminder of how truly messed up society can get, that it’s almost unbelievable. Not to mention, heavy subject matter can always manage with a little humor, albeit dark humor.
It is only further on in the journey, once Curtis and the others get past a large army of axe wielding thugs (yeah, it gets weirdly violent) that we realize how high, or shall I say, forward the upper class are living. We go from the dark, dirty back of the train to the light, colorful front of the train and it’s like entering a whole other world.
We also learn how low the lower class used to live. Before they were being fed disgusting looking protein bars that look like gelatinized blood, they were being starved to death and forced to turn to cannibalism. Messed up, right? Meanwhile people in the front of the train are having a grand old time, they’ve got sushi bars, clubs, flammable drugs to get high on. They’re living the high life over there. However, we also learn that our heroes aren’t so heroic after all. No character is black and white. As we all know, maybe not from experience, is that the struggle for survival makes people do things they wouldn’t normally do, and this is the case for Curtis especially, although I won’t reveal why.
In the end, this is a character study. In a dystopian future we see how high some will rise and how low some will fall. I can imagine if we ever found ourselves in an apocalyptic situation, shit would hit the fan similar to the way it does in this story, or any other post-apocalyptic story for that matter. We see how different characters deal with their situations, and we get a glimpse into the desperation of the main character as we see him fight for a life in this world where people were no longer meant to live.
All of the actors do an incredible job with their roles, particularly John Hurt and Chris Evans. It’s always nice to see Chris Evans in anything aside from Captain America and various stupid rom-coms. Tilda Swinton also rocks some ridiculous looking fake teeth in this movie, but it’s her raw talent that makes that strange, bad guy charisma really shine through.
The images in this movie are fascinating and imaginative, from the frozen world outside to the amazing set designs inside the train. Everything in this movie is art. Snowpiercer really is a different kind of film. The story and characters are complex. I wasn’t really expecting the ending, but I guess that’s a good thing. Some of the violence may seem a little over the top, and perhaps it is, but I just attribute it to the fact that with rebellion often comes violence, and that’s reality. I don’t know if reality often comes with axes dipped in fish blood, but hey, I’m always open to a little bit of creativity.