In an attempt to reverse the effects of climate change, governments around the world launch a chemical into the upper atmosphere. Designed to cool down the planet to a more manageable level, the chemical instead freezes the whole planet and renders it inhospitable to all forms of life. Those that survive find themselves on a train that’s set to eternally circumnavigate the globe lest it stop and its passengers freeze to death. As it often happens in these sorts of dystopian set-ups, there are the upper class folks enjoying the luxury of the front of the train while the rest endure the hardships of the tail section. Curtis (Chris Evans) has decided that enough is enough, and this is where Snowpiercer begins.
The movie is the English-language debut of Korean director Joon-Ho Bong. It’s an adaptation of a French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige, that inspired Bong to think about what it would be like for people struggling to survive aboard a train. With a premise that’s just believable enough for audiences to go, “Ha, yeah, that’s how governments could react to rising planetary temperatures, provided they all agree that this is an issue,” it’s not a movie about how they got to the current status quo. It’s about relentlessly moving forward.
One of the adjectives I’d associate with this movie would be “jarring.” As the tail section rebellion led by Curtis and his second-in-command, Edgar (Jamie Bell), move forward through the train cars, they are predictably confronted with the excesses and luxuries that are enjoyed by the passengers in the front of the car. That’s as it should be, though. Going from the dirt and grime of the tail section and into the beautifully manicured garden car should make people feel uncomfortable. One of my favorite sequences in the film is the comically surreal visit to the school car as the teacher (Allison Pill) gleefully recounts the tale of the train’s leader and benefactor, Wilford (Ed Harris). Again, this movie isn’t meant to make you feel comfortable.
It’s not just Curtis and Edgar making their way forward through the train. They are accompanied by Tracy (Octavia Spencer) and Andrew (Ewen Bremner) who are on a quest to retrieve their children that had been taken by Claude (Emma Levie) and Grey (Luke Pasqualino) who was sent by Curtis’ mentor, Gilliam (John Hurt), to provide violent back-up. Assisting them through the gates are the drug-addicted father-daughter duo of Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song) and Yona (Ah-sung Ko). Namgoong is a security expert who designed all of the gates on the train.
While the voyage to the front of the train is predictably violent, I have to commend Bong for the fact that as brutal as the fight sequences were, they weren’t nearly as gruesome as they could have been. The fights were well-choreographed and, for lack of a better word, artistic. The spurts of blood seemed more like red paint splashing over the bleak canvas. I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy a good gruesome fight scene every now and again, but it wasn’t necessary in a film like this.
We’ve gotten this far in the review and I have to grumble at myself for being remiss in mentioning the fantastically weird performance of Tilda Swinton as Mason, Wilford’s representative and mouthpiece. I’ve always been a huge fan of her work and she did not disappoint. Seriously. I just want more movies with her just being great at what she does. Now that I’ve gotten out of the way, I want to just say that the cast in its entirety did a great job. Evans in particular should get definite credit for his performance as Curtis, the reluctant leader with dark secrets. He broke my heart on screen and it was beautiful and terrible.
I am not going to say that Snowpiercer was a perfect film. While it certainly didn’t deserve the treatment that Harvey Weinstein wanted to give it (cutting at least 20 minutes off the film and adding voice-over), there were moments when the pacing dragged and it could have been pruned for a better end product. I am also not going to go into the whole saga of getting the film released in the United States in all of its uncut glory.
I told my friends that it was a great film, but it is certainly not a fun one. It’s dark, unsettling, and while it has the occasional moment of levity, it’s not a film you decide to sit through on a whim. When you sit down to watch Snowpiercer, you need to know what you’re getting into. While it’s ultimately about the survival of humanity, you are left wondering if humanity really is worth saving after all.