The most unbelievable aspect of writer/director Bong Joon-ho’s SciFi action film SNOWPIERCER may be that governments actually did something to counteract global warming. In the film, the flooding of Earth with a chemical designed to reduce the temperature plunges the world into sub-polar conditions, creating a new ice age that eliminates almost all life on the planet. The sole remaining humans ride a perpetual motion train that makes a yearlong trek around the globe. Apparently in Joon-ho’s home of South Korea, or in France where the original Le Transpercenaige graphic novel was published, or in the Czech Republic or Austria where SNOWPIERCER was filmed, there is enough support for the concept of climate change that someone might actually do something about it. Even more unbelievable, this experiment apparently happens this year, in 2014, as the events of the film take place near the end of 2031, 17 years after the residents first boarded the train.
Getting past my knee-jerk disbelief to the set-up, SNOWPIERCER is a pure joyride of concept, design and execution. Chris Evans plays Curtis, a man from the tail end of the section, and leader of the revolution. His people live in squalor, survive on gelatinous ‘protein blocks,’ and routinely have their children stolen by those at the front of the train. Under the guidance of Gilliam, an old man missing several limbs and played by John Hurt, Curtis and Edgar (Jamie Bell) break out a security expert from the prison car. With his help, the revolution moves forward car-by-car, getting closer to the revered ‘engine’ at the front where Wilford (Ed Harris) rules over the entire train with Godlike distance. In truth, I haven’t trusted Ed Harris since he ran the Truman Show, and he is perfectly calm as he explains the need to keep the train, which is a closed ecological system, essential frozen in development. ‘We don’t have time for natural selection,’ he tells Curtis, and warns him that his order prevents the chaos that comes from survival of the fittest. It is a fascinating argument, one of the things that makes SciFi so special as a genre. Unfortunately for SNOWPIERCER, it comes near the conclusion of the film after a breakneck pace of gunplay and hand-to-hand combat had driven the story for the first two-thirds. When Curtis finally reaches his destination, the film grinds to a halt for a sociological discussion – which is intellectually stimulating, but feels out of place in this particular film. It is also a shame, because the concept of this premise is what makes the film so original. I can’t help but guess the original graphic novel took more time as the revolution moved from cabin to cabin, rising through the social stratification of the train.
That being said, the film is fantastic. The exposition takes about 30 seconds to get out of the way and then we are thrown in the world with the tailies, who really have a number of grievances. Their first target of authority, Minister Mason, played with sharp comic eccentricity by Tilda Swinton, tortures passengers by letting their arm outside of the train for seven minutes, such that the frozen limb can actually chipped off with a sledgehammer afterwards. The relationships between of revolutionary team are well established and developed and we get to know several of them on the journey, thus investing us in any loss the team experiences. I mention this because it seems so rare in movies these days. Snowpiercer actually feel a lot like “The Walking Dead,” with a group of unlikely heroes led by a hard-ass against an unstoppable, non-negotiable force. I especially enjoyed Octavia Spencer as an unlikely warrior who is searching for her stolen child, showing people a hand drawing made by memory by one of the other tailies.
Production Designer and Art Director Ondrej Nekvasil is probably the film’s MVP. Each car has its own look and feel, and delivers new obstacles to fight around. Despite the essentially claustrophobic set-up of the film, the action itself never feels constricted and every battle contains surprises and revelations. The revolution progresses from dark dirty hell of the back, through brighter and brighter cars, eventually reaching the front, a minimalist twisting almost portal to heaven. Along the way they cross through every walk of life and necessity for living out a life on a moving vehicle, all consciously ordered by their societal class. As they progress up the train, every car is a little more lavish and eccentric, going through the industrial car where the protein bars are manufactured to and a stocked greenhouse, to the wrap around aquarium car where fish are culled twice a year for sushi. Later cars include a sauna and an endless rave. While a little more time could have been spent examining the socio-economic methodology of the train, and how it is held together, each car provides an exciting and diverse backdrop for combat and revelation.
A mere four cars in, Gilliam tells Curtis no revolution had made it this far previously. However, Curtis is spurred on by encouraging notes from ahead, letting him know facts like the car is ‘Water.’ Take the water supply, he believes, and they can hold the train. But when they get there, it is not enough. And they push ahead, which is great for the viewer, but not necessarily logical for the film. I never understood why they didn’t just hold the food supply and start executing the upper class until Wilford comes to deal with them. This is sort of the main stumbling block of the film – it’s too smart, so I expect the characters to be smarter than they are. Holding siege in one car full of food way more delicious than the protein blocks is not nearly as exciting as going forward, from an filmic perspective, but the revolution loses sight of its goal. A little more groundwork could have been laid to change Curtis from the judicious upstart carefully weighing their timing and success possibility into a near zealot desperate to kill Wilford – that would have at least help make the story make sense, but that opportunity is not embraced. Still, moving forward provides the audience with more eye candy and the showdown we so desperately want. One of the my favorite scenes involves the revolution making it to the education car, where a very fervent Alison Pill indoctrinates the children to worship their leader, with song and story.
Despite some logic misgivings, SNOWPIERCER is blast, a fun SciFi with enough thought behind it to keep you invested intellectually, as you delight on the visual smorgasbord and keep pace with the frenetic action sequences. It’s the kind of movie that could only be made outside of the Hollywood system, yet has the budget and recognizable faces that you would expect from a blockbuster. With SNOWPIERCER and EDGE OF TOMORROW, it really has already been a banner year for SciFi. Time to start counting down the days for INTERSTELLAR.