UPDATE: This review was published earlier but was deleted during the server revamp. In case you missed it, however…
The summer movie season is the best because it’s when what remains of Hollywood’s creativity is unleashed. Yet these days, too often are they uniformly bland, even toxic in their sameness. I’ll defend the superhero genre as fiercely as I would anything I treasure, but I’d soon enough get sick of it all the same if I didn’t get anything else.
Snowpiercer is just that – something else. I wouldn’t have guessed that one of the year’s best summer movies would take place in a snowy future where Hell has almost literally frozen over. By result of humanity’s extreme measures taken to counteract global warming, the coolant unleashed upon the atmosphere causes an ice age that effectively eliminates all life on Earth. Those few thousand people that boarded a self-sustaining train called The Rattling Ark, in what is the first of many unsubtle metaphors throughout, are humanity’s last survivors. This train grows its own food, collects, converts, and recycles water, and never stops moving. The wealthy elite live it up with their chicken & steak dinners at the front along with the train’s founder and creator – Mr. Wilford, and the rest that were lucky (or unlucky) enough to get on board for free presumably in the final minutes before departure are crammed into the tail car. They eat nothing but raw protein bars that are delivered to them by those ahead.
It’s been like this for seventeen years, but it has not been so without revolt. Now, Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) has decided that it’s time for another. When the elites and their jackbooted soldiers antagonize them further, the revolt begins, and Everett & co. must fight their way car-by-car all the way to the very front, to Mr. Wilford’s engine. The film mostly keeps with Everett and his sidekick Edger’s perspectives the entire time, but as they advance up the train, the narrative slowly peels back its many layers, revealing interesting insights both about the characters themselves and about this new form of civilization they inhabit.
This being writer/director Bong Joon-ho’s English debut (and I confess this is the first of his filmography that I’ve ever seen), the movie doesn’t have the best dialogue. The subject-matter at play is no easy work, and Bong has a heck of a lot that he wants to say here. Subtlety is not Snowpiercer’s strong suit, but that’s actually a point in its favor because the film is most memorable when it’s absurdist. When the indubitably talented Tilda Swinton makes her entrance into the film, both her character’s twisted cartoonish bureaucratic personality and the tyranny of the system she stands for are established with a hilarious metaphor.
Bong succeeds a lot more in presentation, almost as if he wants you to believe that he’s thought of everything. For a movie that takes place in the tight corridors and stuffy rooms of a locomotive, the action scenes are remarkably varied. There’s one fight staged almost entirely through a single tracking shot, one that shifts perspectives to the bad guys and makes the battle look like a videogame, and one that goes full 300. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Whether he has to bring in a hotshot but even more needlessly evil new character halfway through the film – who gets no background and maybe one line of dialogue total, or turn entire drunken and drug-addled rave into a mob for no real reason, Bong really shows his determination to give the audience a good time. It’s fun; just don’t take it too seriously.
It’s that reason perhaps most of all why I think Snowpiercer works just fine. The drama has a great flow to it, as nearly each new car promises to showcase something even more interesting than before, and Chris Evans sells every bit of it. In case you suspect that he’s just playing a slightly more violent Captain America, wait until you see just how dark a turn his character takes just before the final act.
You’ll notice I haven’t really been addressing the film’s substance, but it’s not as if there’s any lacking. Admittedly, this is partially because I don’t want to spoil the film for you (I still won’t), but your overall enjoyment of Snowpiercer will very much depend upon how you project your politics into the narrative and how much thought you give it, and too often are films given a misleading wrap based on how those projections from viewers manifested into poor judgment of quality. Strictly taking what the story provides, it’s quite clear that Snowpiercer wants you to see how natural it is for the institutions and social structures of man – no matter how necessary or conceptually wonderful they seem – to devolve into despotism, unleashing perpetual oppression upon the weak. It also opts to demonstrate how power and social order – in the way human beings understand them – often operate on lies and endure through concealment of how broken and unsustainable said social structures actually are and perhaps always have been. Does it succeed in imparting such a moral? Yes, I think it does.
With all that said, many people (critics included) will likely draw a lot more from it than that. Some will see it as a manifesto for modern classist revolution or a call to action against global warming so to avoid the wrath of another ice age. Others will see it as nothing but dog-whistle propaganda for those who are stupid enough to think that the circumstances of The Rattling Ark bear any actual resemblance to today’s real world. It’s neither.
Bong is certainly preaching hard like the known firebrand that he is, but his structuring and plotting of Snowpiercer indicate remarkable self-awareness. He clearly knows how absurd most of the bad guys are. He makes them that way in part to relax your brain so he can poke at it with more difficult questions at the end. Bong contrasts tone with a rather heavy hand as well, and he relies on the film’s sillier and more absurd elements to make the deeper and more heartfelt moments of interplay meaningful – with an emphasis on the function of timing. This is a cartoon that he’s making real to us, but that doesn’t mean it ever stops being a cartoon.
Speaking of being a cartoon, there’s also the fact that this train has almost literally no economy of any kind, cementing stagnation among the populace. The rich have nothing to do but relax, party, and ingest all the food and drugs they want. And the poor have nothing to do except eat the same sludge and stew in their own filth and misery. The movie mentions that there is an economy class, but I don’t think we ever actually see it. The closest thing this train has to social mobility of any kind is a man being summoned abducted from the tail car to the front because the rich have use for his skill at the violin. In fact, I spent most of the movie wondering why those plutocrats didn’t just dislodge the tail car and hang the poor out to dry in the cold that they’d have no chance of surviving. Fortunately, the movie did eventually answer that one.
Those who have studied the patterns of revolution will understand that people don’t rise up just because they’re fed up of getting stomped by regimes. They do it because they can. There’s a reason Lenin and his Bolsheviks didn’t make a dent against the Russian aristocracy until the nation and Nicholas’ regime was worn out and bled dry by a massive war they were losing. There’s a reason the French Revolution didn’t happen until after France had lost its navy and all of Nouvelle France at the end of the Seven Years War and when Louis XVI proved to be a spineless and indecisive king (who actually said out loud that the crown hurt his head). Surprisingly, some of that did actually make it into the narrative of Snowpiercer, but it has nothing to do with its overall ethos.
I encourage everyone to try and see Snowpiercer in theaters if they are able. Have fun, and do think about it. Just don’t overthink it, because you’ll miss the point.
The Good: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Ed Harris, Jamie Bell, the action, the cinematography, the setup, the flow, the ideas, the twist(s), and the ending.
The Bad: Some plot details missing, one action scene that’s ultimately pointless, and one character that exists just to be a ridiculously evil henchman.
The Train Wreck: I got nothing; I just wanted to make “Train Wreck” a TLDR category.