A post-apocalyptic ice age forces humanity’s last survivors aboard a globe-spanning super train. One man (Chris Evans) will risk everything to lead a revolt for control of the engine and the future of the world.
We had Snowpiercer on our Instant Queue “My List” for months before finally making the time to watch it last night. I ended up being decidedly impressed with it. Here’s my spoiler free review. Spoilerific analysis to come later this week.
At the heart of the film is a post-apocalyptic dystopia. A man-made ice-age, brought on by a last-ditch attempt to counter the effects of climate change, has made life on Earth all but extinct. What’s left are the few humans, animals, and plants that circle the globe on a train called Snowpiercer.
The designer of this “ark” is a man named Wilford, a mysterious man who occupies the front of the train, the engine room, and holds a status on the train just below God. But the film focuses on the lowest strata of the train–those who live in sub-human conditions in the tail of the car. These survivors live in overcrowding and filth, eat gelatinous protein bars for every meal, and are at the mercy of the whims of the front cars and the guards who keep the tail in line. Meanwhile the passengers in the front of the train enjoy steak dinners and other luxuries the tail-people can only imagine.
The injustices have caused a tipping point in the tail-enders–they are ready to follow the risky plan of Curtis (Chris Evans) forward to take the engine, and thus control of the train.
The film begins as a fascinating dystopian vision. The soot-covered tail inhabitants, their grubby clothing, and their interactions paint a picture of oppressed community attempting to function underneath a fascist system they have no power to oppose. As the plot thickens, stirring the tail-people to revolt, director Bong Joon Ho is not afraid to show the audience the horror of a social system kept in place through violence and fear. And while there’s plenty of bleakness to the world of the tail-enders, there is also dark humor, often through the absurd costuming and mannerisms of Tilda Swinton’s character Mason. She gives a speech early on meant to bring the tail-enders back in line which centers on how you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head–stay in your place–while adjacent to her a man is being brutally punished for a recent offense against a front-dweller. The mix tonally echoed a film like Judge Dredd (2012), though the film-making overall was much stronger.
As Curtis’s plan gets underway, the film becomes a riveting action film, one built especially for those who might be sick of the action sequences of big blockbuster films whose directors have no sense of direction or the 180-degree rule. In Snowpiercer, location and direction are very much the point, and Bong Joon Ho uses these to heighten the tension and build the reveals until the ending.
So while the film is a fascinating sci-fi action spectacle, it is also a piercing social critique, skewing systems of class especially and how those systems are kept in place through cyclical routines. The structure of the train, the color and lighting choices, and the cinematography all echoed these themes. The film kept me thinking about its implications over night and into today–and I’m sure I’m not done yet.
Snowpiercer is a vision of society that infested my dreams and has begun resonating strongly, like, Apocalypse Now-level strongly. I intend to unpack some of that thinking in a later post. Until then, I can only recommend as highly as possible that you view this on Netflix Instant while you still have the chance.