Bong Joon-Ho’s rich dystopian epic takes a delightfully simple concept and pushes it almost to the breaking point.
Know your place. Accept your place. Be a shoe.
After the opening credit, “A film by Bong Joon-Ho,” the first names on the screen in Snowpiercer’s first moments are not the cast, not the producers, not any of the typical below-the-line leaders, but the Makeup, Costume, and Production Designers. And it only takes a few scenes to understand why, as the star of the film isn’t Chris “Captain America” Evans, or even Tilda Swinton’s grotesque villain, but the world that Bong and his team have created. The train, the “Eternal Engine,” is the star, and the Humanity that fills it.
Based only in concept on a French comic series from the early ’80s, the story is set 17 years in the future, when the planet has been frozen solid (thanks to a global warming solution that backfired spectacularly), and the mere thousands (hundreds?) that remain have been packed into the titular train, speeding along a track that circumnavigates the globe once a year, like clockwork. It has been built to be self-sustaining, a perfectly calibrated ecosystem, with the added inconvenience of an oppressive class system: rich people up front, with their gardens and aquariums and schools; the majority, the poor, in the tail section, living in squalor and eating “protein bars” of mysterious origin. If you go outside, you die. If the train stops, everyone dies. It’s devilishly simple, and Bong sets it all up with a minimum of exposition.
This little community of the caboose is frequently taunted by Mason (Swinton), a goggle-eyed, lisping administrator, drunk on power, with an enormous overbite and fanaticism about “keeping everyone in their place.” Anyone with a useful skill is taken whether they like it or not; at regular intervals, the children are measured and taken as well (again, for an unknown purpose). Anyone who fights back is punished in barbaric, if economic, fashion: one man has his arm stuck out the window of the train until it quite literally freezes enough to be smashed with a sledgehammer. (Yet that moment, like many others, is surprisingly not that graphic. Either Bong simply didn’t have the budget for gore, or astutely realized he didn’t need it.)
As always in cases like this, someone must rise up to lead the downtrodden in an uprising. Every rebellion that has been attempted has failed, but Curtis (Evans), with encouragement from his mentor, Gilliam (John Hurt), and a loyal-but-foul-mouthed English kid named Edgar (Jamie Bell), believes the time is right for another one. The mission is simple: fight your way to the front of the train, some fifty cars down. Take the engine. Depose Wilford, the entrepreneur who built the train and has been more or less deified, if he’s even there. The proletarians outnumber the bourgeois, so it can be done. Curtis doesn’t want to be a “leader,” and he’s got his own demons to battle, but everyone follows him anyway, so it must be done.
It’s such an appealingly linear narrative — keep moving forward — and it’s the second film this summer (after the tremendous Edge of Tomorrow) to tap into that very familiar “video game” momentum. Open a door, clear out the room, open the next door. It’s so simple, in fact, that there’s a real risk of becoming weary of the process, but Bong is determined not to let that happen. Through creative camerawork and astonishingly detailed set design, every car is different, there’s a surprise behind every gate, and the mysteries of the train are doled out slowly. Curtis frees a Korean father and daughter (Song Kang-Ho and Ko Ah-Sung) from the adjacent prison car, the former of whom he needs to hotwire the gates in exchange for “Kronol,” the hallucinogenic industrial waste the pair are addicted to, and from that point on we’re off to the races.
This is Bong Joon-Ho’s English-language debut, though he is highly acclaimed for his work in Korea — particularly 2006’s The Host, a stunningly vibrant and confident monster movie made on a budget dwarfed by American studios. And in Snowpiercer he makes use of every dollar, giving us sequence after sequence of inventive setpieces and action beats (a massive brawl set as the train is making its way through a tunnel, employing night-vision effects and later flying torches, is an all-timer). The visual language may be straightforward — Curtis & Co. are always moving from left to right — but as Bong shows, there are infinite ways to present it. Each train car was its own set, mounted on a gimbal with movable walls, and his more extravagant long takes seem so effortless you don’t even realize what you saw — and how impossible it was — until he has already moved on. The cinematography from Hong Kyung-Pyo is starkly beautiful, a grimy chiaroscuro that organically evolves the further forward we go.
It’s best to think of Snowpiercer, which is unrelentingly bleak in sections and bounces to a syncopated cadence never seen in Hollywood fare, as an allegory; a tale that presents its archetypes up front (the brooding hero, the protege, the old adviser, the simpering foil) and then proceeds to defy those conventions at every turn. Swinton is on an ungraphable wavelength here, continuing to show her expanding range with each strange new project she attaches to. Mason is so cartoon-y, a caricature of a caricature of a puppet of a female Kim-Jong Il, that at first you don’t see how she can even be in the same movie with the stoic Evans; but where lesser directors would waffle on the tone of a film like this, Bong tacks hard into her strain of weirdness until the rest of the production rises to meet it, which doesn’t take long.
That doesn’t mean that everything works flawlessly, as multiple side characters are little more than stock types with no clear motivations of their own. While I definitely appreciate the “show, don’t tell” approach, just a little bit more “telling” might have been helpful, rather than allowing them to pass through the narrative just as a piece of the machine (no pun intended). The principals are well-defined with rich character arcs, but other, equally interesting characters don’t get more than a few lines of dialogue despite being present for entire stretches of the film. In a general sense, like I already mentioned above, it takes a while to latch onto Snowpiercer’s rhythms; the tone will be too “out-there” for some, and in some scenes it’s clear Bong is testing just how far he can push things. (This will sound insane, but the anarchy of The Fifth Element came to mind, though this is exponentially darker.) The film is a visual marvel, eccentric and audacious, but if each moment doesn’t land just right…well, I’m okay with that, I think.
There was much concern that The Weinstein Company would take a hatchet to the film, softening its edges for the American market. Shockingly, they did not. At every stage, Bong (along with co-writer Kelly Masterson) plays on our expectations, fully aware that we’re bracing ourselves for the next twist — and, as students of the genre, that we think we know what it will be — and manages to surprise us every time. The film’s climax, which (oddly) involves characters just talking to each other, is devastating both on a character and narrative level, but the film doesn’t just send you out under a rain cloud. Instead, it pokes and prods at you, making you ask how you would act in these situations, in this world; is humanity worth fighting for? If we are the instruments of our own destruction, will we just be getting what we deserve? Can the twin cycles of violence and oppression ever be broken? What must be sacrificed to preserve what we have?
You may very well find Snowpiercer difficult and troubling — I certainly did — but the level of craft and artistry on display, as well as its thought-provoking nature, is beyond dispute. What I’m really saying is this: While it’s true that I wanted to enjoy Snowpiercer more than I did (you’ll find unmodulated raves in some corners of the internet), I am very, very glad it exists. I’d rather see a dozen more films like this, with a confident artistic vision and a powerful message, than one more Transformers sequel; I just wish more people felt the same way. We need more cinema like Snowpiercer, or like Edge of Tomorrow, or next week’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. These films actually mean something. It’s not just well-crafted escapism; it’s not just “summer entertainment.” These are significant works of art that demand your respect, if not your love. What more could you want? What’s keeping you, fellow cinephile, savvy consumer of pop culture, from facing the challenge?