Reviewed by Drew Ninnis
Country: South Korea
Director: Joon-ho Bong
Screenplay: Joon-ho Bong, Kelly Masterson.
Runtime: 126 minutes.
Cast: Chris Evans, Kang-ho Song, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt.
Plot: Seventeen years after a failed climate change experiment, the world is frozen and remnants of humanity cling to life aboard the train of the title. Circling the world in an endless loop, the train is rigidly divided by class and carriage, with the worst conditions experienced by those in the tail of the train. Enter Curtis, a man ready to start a revolution and accomplish the impossible by making it all the way to the front of the train, capturing the eternal engine.
Review: Based on the French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige, Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer deploys some fascinating concepts and exciting action scenes, but fails to live up to its initial promise. Despite this, it remains an entertaining and engaging action film that is worth catching if you are in the mood for an afternoon’s diversion.
The film follows reluctant leader Curtis (Chris Evans), who along with the resistance’s oracle Gilliam (John Hurt), mastermind a rebellion against a repressive class system that keeps them in harsh living circumstances. The twist is that this social structure is essential to the running of a thousand carriage train with a perpetual motion engine, which contains the last remnants of humanity on an otherwise frozen Earth. Tilda Swinton appears in a standout performance as Mistress Mason, the Joseph Goebbels of the locomotive who is responsible for handling unrest in the tail end of the train (read: the slums) and propagating the half-hearted religious narratives that serve the hierarchy of the train. Mason deals out swift and brutal punishment to her charges; maintaining a fragile order in awful conditions. However, the order breaks when Curtis begins to suspect that the security forces’ bullets have ‘gone extinct’ (a cute expression for all of the old world goods that are no longer available). A demarche from the front, and the abduction of several children, is the spark that lights the tinder of Curtis’ revolution (as it comes to be known).
Like many dystopian or post-apocalyptic films, many of the pleasures of the film are in the conceptual surprises of what our doom looks like. Snowpiercer ably delivers these, although the metaphor of the world as train smacks a little of a Thomas Friedman op-ed. The carriage classes fits neatly into a new class structure, and Curtis’ neo-Leninist crusade against inequality has a real resonance. The film also locks itself early into a satisfying structure of carriage by carriage progress, each new door promising a different glimpse into the operation of the dystopia. The transformation is slow but stunning, with the industrial and derelict back cabins of greys and browns slowly giving way to the beautiful woods, rich colours, and Scandinavian design of the front carriages.
Early on, the uprising rescues Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song), a prisoner responsible for building the doors and security systems. He functions as the magic tech expert in the film; with a few nice touches such as his addiction to a drug/industrial waste chemical found on the train, and a daughter (Ah-sung Ko) who is positioned early as the clairvoyant hope of a new humanity. The film is satisfyingly merciless when it comes to the life or death of its characters, in a casual and sudden way that only Korean action flicks can sell successfully. Joon-ho Bong’s direction and pacing is highly accomplished, although some will object to intentionally shaky camera work during key fight scenes and a few visually confusing rapid action shots. Overall, the design and tone blends seamlessly, bringing to life the world of the train.
But the film falls apart when it begins the slow descent into resolution of the conflicts; and the answers provided by the inevitable meeting with overlord Wilfred (Ed Helms) at the front of the train prove predictable and dissatisfying. Many will recognise the sloppy trope this confrontation falls into, similar to the much mocked meeting of Neo and the Architect at the close of The Matrix Reloaded. It also seems mandatory that these meetings take place in the white bedroom of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Closure of individual narratives is equally as unsatisfying, as the characters are drawn in such broad terms that the audience has little personal attachment to them. Chris Evans’ performance, aside from a stunning monologue, doesn’t really help here – he generally adopts that gruff, faux-Tom Waits voice that has been a legislative requirement of superhero actors since the Michael Keaton Act of 1989 (Cth).
Despite this, Snowpiercer is an enjoyable distraction; and the view from the train windows of the desolate future of humanity is stunning. The political message you may wish to extract from the film is left up to the viewer; ultimately, the conflict is a scaffold for some audacious concepts and excellent action sequences. Who knows why we are so obsessed with the image of the broken castle, and our survival beyond our own ruin, but the fascination endures.
Rating: Three stars.