Article By: Dan Clark
Due to the power of movies we all have had the pleasure of seeing our world come to a crumbling end. From demonic annihilation to worldwide environmental disasters to crippling epidemics, we have seen humanity fall in nearly every way possible. Bon Joon-ho’s latest film Snowpiercer is another addition to the very crowded field of post-apocalyptic thrillers. This ambitious take—on life after a failed global warming experiment kills the entire world population except a small group aboard highly advanced train—shows originality and ingenuity can still permeate in the world of genre films.
Snowpierecer’s concept is the thematic version of an optical illusion. Depending on your point of view it can seem like a high concept tale full of complicated intricacies, or simply a story of the impoverished attempting to take control from the empowered. It has been seventeen years since the world went cold. Life is seemingly unsustainable outside the Snowpiercer locomotive. Within those seventeen years a bureaucratic system has taken shape. The end of the train became the home of the parasitic lower class. People live in their own filth and the only nourishment comes in the form of factory produced protein bars. Those in the front of the train reside in pristine conditions. Heated pools, healthcare, and gourmet style foods are always at their beck and call. Fed up with the prejudicial conditions, the tail section plans a revolt to bring a balance to this microcosmic class structure.
Some may confuse this as The Raid on a train. A movie that is short on story and heavy on action. Here there is much more of a balance. Action is solely used to support the story, and fits into the framework of the plot structure. Easily the biggest standout sequence is an incursion that occurs as the train travels through a borrowing tunnel. The progression moved in unexpected directions and had a stunning visual presentation.
This is a genre film in every sense of the word. It comes from the same ilk of John Carpenter’s greatest works. Where it melds campiness with a shrewd grit, and lets its plot get out of the way in order to focus on the more important characters. Leading the pack is Chris Evans as the de facto leader Curtis. Evans is as good as ever showing there is no question in his ability in carrying a movie. Although with actors like John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Alision Pill , Ah-sun ko, and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer he clearly had help in that task. Joon-ho shows unmatched skill keeping all these parts together. No actor feels short-changed, and no character appears undeveloped.
Surprising there was not much lost in translation. Those familiar with South Korean cinema know the unique tonal approaches that are typically taken. Directors, especially Joon-ho, tend to mix antithetical tones within moments of one another. This subversive technique may be too much for some. For others the volatility of each scene keeps you on your toes.
Some of the surreal comedic moments may be difficult to digest. Specifically Tilda Swintons’s character, who operates as the train’s totalitarian mouthpiece, can be interpreted as a misstep of unintentional comedy. No doubt she is larger than life and at times too large for her own good. Her unsettling gold tooth, over pronounced accent, and highly volatile emotional state causes her to feel out of place among the other toned down main characters.
Having such a straightforward plot structure where characters make their way from train to train could easily become repetitive. Joon-ho avoided that pitfall through his astute use of alluring visuals. No one will confuse these special effects with other high budget blockbusters. The rendering of the frozen outside world lacks some believability. Inside the train however, the imagery distinctly differentiated each car from the last. Stark differences in light were key indications to the level of prosperity. Tail sections were shot to seem drab and dingy. Moving to the advanced levels was like awakening from hibernation as they became saturated with bright light. Each section was unlike the last giving it a world like feel. Certain sections did stretch the level of believability. A school sequence that displays how the autocratic system took shape becomes more awkward than effective.
Based a French graphic novel, with a South Korean director, and a cast filled with worldwide talent—there may not be a movie that has a more eclectic makeup than that of Snowpierecer. Considering the allegorical implications a diverse design is a must for making everything work. Those metaphorical ramifications may be too heavy-handed for some, but in reality this script is well aware of what it is doing. Within its blunt social commentary are examples of subtle criticism and creative storytelling. This is more than a movie about a failed class system; it is about the misconceptions that are made on all side. That also does not forget to bring the fun.