‘Snowpiercer’ review: Dystopian Present

In his chilling study of societal cleaves and exploitative hierarchy, director Bong Joon-ho (co-writing with Kelly Masterson) boards a circumnavigational train in the year 2031, which is all that remains of the world. Outside of this seemingly self-sustaining train is a world that’s frozen snow white, thanks to humankind’s climate manipulation to control global warming experiment-gone-wrong circa 2014. There’s no sign of life, and that’s the first lesson Joon-ho slaps across our collective faces: want to control global warming and other insidious effects our rapid progress has wrought on Mother Nature? Slow down. Stop. There’s no shortcut to reversing the damages of our environmental sins.

Chris Evans: trainspotting

Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer is cleverly and misleadingly couched as a futuristic sci-fi thriller. The train, owned and run by reclusive magnate Wilford (Ed Harris in a superb cameo) and its compartments are a metaphor for the world we live in. It’s a world we’ve always lived in. And each compartment houses a section of a pyramidical society; the tail-end compartments are crammed with the have-nots who have misery, squalor, and each other for company. Art director Stefan Kovacik and cinematographer Hong Kyung Pyo keep hope and light out of reach here and the effect is stunning and despairing. This is also where Curtis (Chris Evans in a superbly sensitive, scorching turn) plans a revolt with his aide Edgar (Jamie Bell), guided and counselled by father figure to all in this section, Gilliam (the brilliant John Hurt). When the guards from up front come in to take away some of the children is also when Tanya and Andrew (Octavia Spencer and Ewen Bremner, both very good) affected parents come into sharp focus in the gruelling story. Wilford’s soldiers and deeds are executed—literally—by Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton in a darkly comic performance that she positively revels in). To get to the front of the train and take over the world, Curtis and gang enlist the help of security engineer Namgoong Minsoo (Song Kang-ho in a performance that haunts and affects) and his clairvoyant daughter Yona (Ko Asung). Addicted to an addictive substance called Kronole, the father-daughter duo may be Curtis’s only chance to reach the front of the train.

Tilda Swinton is deliciously devilish

Dark, comic, and deeply unsettling, Snowpiercer is at once social commentary and parody. The scene where both sides pause to celebrate the new year is laugh aloud totes fun, while the action scenes are visceral, stifling, and tightly claustrophobic. There’s a frame that beautifully encapsulates all that Joon-ho wants to say: a colored man serving sushi to a rag-tag group of people even as the train window looks at a frozen harbor. There’s exploitation, head-in-the-sand hoity-toityness, deep and wide divides, and a tinge of hubris there.

But Snowpiercer is more than a stunningly evocative experience, a poetic tying up of character motivations and manipulations, or a hauntingly fleeting snowflake scene. As the camera progresses from compartment to compartment, going up the societal layer, the crowds become as thin as luxurious silk, the furnishings get plusher—there’s even a psychedelic pub very close to the top—and the people seemingly getting their Nimrodized power by their place in the structure. Joon-ho wouldn’t have known he was being prescient then, but the global pandemic we’re amidst has exposed that very train of horror. The seemingly basic tenet of beating and surviving this contagion—social distancing—is a luxury too. Our entitled and comfortable compartments keep us insulated from the wracking struggle to stay alive and sustain, where crammed living spaces make the most hash-tagged, aforementioned two words seem like a mockery of their misery. It’s only a matter of time before this unevenly loaded train wrecks.

Snowpiercer (2013) on IMDb Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.

Snowpiercer is streaming on Netflix and is rated A (Restricted to adults). Violence, drugs, and snow everywhere.

Director Bong Joon-ho Time 2h 6min
Writers Bong Joon-ho, Kelly Masterson
Stars Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Song Kang-ho, Jamie Bell, Ewen Bremner, Ko Asung
Genres Action, Drama, Sci-Fi

Snowpiercer official trailer