Snowpiercer: when class war goes off the rails

After a long and infamous delay due to studio infighting, Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s post-apocalyptic thinkpiece Snowpiercer is finally playing in American movie theaters. This is how the story goes: in the not so distant future, humanity accidentally causes a worldwide ice age in an attempt to slow down global warming. With life on Earth quickly dying out, the planet’s last survivors board a gargantuan train called Snowpiercer. On Snowpiercer, the rich live in luxury at the front of the train and the impoverished are relegated to the back of the train, also known as the Tail. That is, until the poor decide to revolt.

The poor rebel so as to take charge of the front of the train — whoever controls the engine essentially controls the world. The leader of the revolt is Curtis Everett, played by an unrecognizably scruffy Chris Evans. Everett is aided in his ploy by fellow Tail inhabitant Tanya, played by a criminally underused Octavia Spencer, plus security expert Nam and his flighty daughter Yona, played by Korean actors Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung, respectively.

Everett and company make their way through the train mostly thanks to the skills of Nam and Yona, both of whom Everett bribes with drugs. As they all progress car by car, the internal world of the train is slowly revealed until they reach their destination at the front of the train, where Everett has a final and surreal confrontation with Wilford (played by Ed Harris), the mysterious creator of Snowpiercer.

***

Snowpiercer is one of the most visually arresting movies I’ve ever seen to the point that I think it’s on par with Tarsem Singh’s masterpiece The Fall. I was not expecting this given that the setting of a train interior wouldn’t seem to lend itself to interesting sets, but I was proven quite wrong. Another surprising thing about Snowpiercer is how quiet of a movie it is in the sense that there is not a lot of dialogue between characters until the very end. As with many other aspects of the movie, this silence is rather jarring given that it takes place on a gargantuan locomotive and most scenes should be quite noisy as passenger trains are anything but quiet. All of that being said, Snowpiercer is quite visceral at times, almost physically so. I say this in reference to a final speech of sorts that Everett gives to Nam before he confronts Wilford. He reveals the gory truth about life in the Tail, at which point I practically fell out of my seat over the disgusting revelation.

From a sci-fi standpoint, the movie requires a certain amount of handwavium, more so than most sci-fi movies. Admittedly, just the idea of packing humanity’s last survivors into a giant train seems rather farcical, but to me that was part of the appeal. Nonetheless, there are some details that just have to be accepted, like the fantastical substance that inadvertently caused an ice age and how people in the train are able to apparently raise livestock. Moreover, the overall pacing of the movie seemed rather off in some scenes, especially toward the end after Everett reaches the front.

Overall, Snowpiercer is, in turns, dark, awful, funny, surreal and cruel, and I highly doubt I will see anything like it any time soon.

Top image via enzozid.com. 

 

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