It’s twenty years into the next ice age and the future is bleak. Trapped aboard a train navigating the Earth’s circumference, the last remaining members of the human race struggle to survive… at least those who reside at the back of the train.
Thanks to an attempt to stop global warming gone horribly awry, the world has frozen, killing nearly all life on the planet. The Snowpiercer’s perpetual motion-powered engine and its creator Wilford (a cool and menacing Ed Harris) are humanity’s only salvation, a message drilled into the minds of the train’s passengers at every opportunity. Those who are not grateful are punished, and being grateful means keeping your place, be it at the front of the train, where the elite reside, or at the tail, where the “the freeloaders” are doomed to suffer.
Life in the tail is difficult and Bong expertly portrays the suffocating confines of the space, aided by Ondrej Nekvasil’s superb production design and costume designer Catherine George’s convincing handiwork . Soot-covered passengers live in sickeningly cramped quarters with little light or food, subsisting off of and frantically consuming disgusting rations doled out by the front. 18 years of such hardship have given rise to three rebellions, all of which failed as the insurgents failed to seize the source of the power, the engine. Now Curtis (Chris Evans) believes it’s time for that to change. A stoic, gruff 30-something, Curtis is a natural leader and perfectly poised to become the people’s hero if he can manage to reach the front of the train. Urged forward by his mentor and moral compass Gilliam (played with wisdom and compassion by John Hurt), Curtis rallies a team of down-trodden but strong-willed passengers to fight back against their oppressors. Curtis, his young protege Edgar (Jamie Bell), and a determined mother named Tanya (Octavia Spencer) set off to find Namgoong Minsu (played by Bong’s long-time collaborator Song Kang-ho (송강호), a security specialist who designed the gates that keep the proletariat trapped in their hellish quarters. Namgoong agrees to help them only if his daughter Yona (Koh Ah-sung (고아성, another collaborator) can join and only if the party agrees to the terms that they set out. Speaking via a high-tech translator, the characters are able to understand one another despite the fact that Namgoong only speaks Korean, adding another layer of mystery to the unfolding epic and allowing for some comic relief. As the team travels forward, they are met with luxuries many have not seen in their lifetime and horrors too frightening to imagine, unleashed at the hands of Wilford’s cruel and self-serving assistant Mason (a wickedly quirky Tilda Swinton).
The film is gorgeously visually appealing, each frame filled with detail for the viewer to explore. As one event passes in the foreground, another captures attention in the background, thanks to long, sweeping and artfully planned shots which keep the audience at the edge of their seats. The cast is a winning assembly of talented performers: Song and Koh from Korea, Hollywood stars Harris and Spencer joined by Evans in a daring new role as Curtis, and art film auteurs Hurt and Swinton, who masterfully evoke the emotional highs and lows of their caste. The constant hum of the train on the tracks and the gentle sway of the carriages serve as a constant reminder of the shifting battlegrounds, as the characters move forward from their near black-and-white existence in the rear of the train to the colorful, rich utopia of the front carriages. With each car, a new world is unfolded leaving the audience wondering what will come next. The audience need not wait long however since the desperate urgency of the mission dictates that the heroes press forward, forcing them into new worlds and battles each captured in the microcosm of a single train car.
The unexplained flaws in the story-line can be distracting, but only if the viewer dwells on them. For example, how have the tracks not needed maintenance in 18 years? This is just one of several questions that arise, but to focus on those minor issues is to remove one’s self from the total enjoyment and exhilarating thrills that the film provides. If anything, some sub-par CGI is more distracting than story-line hiccups, but even then the rest of the visuals are so captivating that these errors can be forgiven. Snowpiercer is an ambitious film, a dystopian escapist fantasy tackling issues of class and privilege with grit and candor. While not a perfect film, it’s pretty close, and at the very least an entertaining way to pass 125 minutes.
The film contains graphic violence and language so viewer discretion is advised.
Snowpiercer (설국열차), 2013, 125 minutes (Note: The US release has been cut by 20 minutes)
Country: South Korea, USA, France
Director: Bong Joon-ho (봉준호)
Producers: Park Chan-wook (박찬욱), Lee Tae-hun (이태훈)
Cast: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho (송강호), Tilda Swinton, Ko Ah-sung (고아성), Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Ed Harris
Screenplay: Bong Joon-ho (봉준호), Kelly Masterson
Cinematography: Hong Kyung-pyo (홍경표)
Production Designer: Ondrej Nekvasil
Editor: Steve M. Choe
Art Director: Stefan Kovacik
Music: Marco Beltrami
Costume Designer: Catherine George