May 2024

Snowpiercer (2013)

snowpiercer1DIRECTOR: Joon-ho Bong

CAST: Chris Evans, Kang-Ho Song, Ah-Sung Ko, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Ewen Bremner, Ed Harris


Snowpiercer, while it contains visceral action sequences that wouldn’t be out of place in a major summer action movie, was given only a limited arthouse release, with major studios leery of giving it high-profile promotion (in fact, it’s a South Korean-funded project).  One can see why upon viewing the complete product; this is not a conventional action movie, or a conventional anything, and it’s too grim and downbeat to be anything resembling “feel good” or crowd-pleasing.  For those not deterred by those disclaimers, Snowpiercer is still a bit of a mess, but it’s an engaging, often fascinating mess bursting with ideas and cool moments, and understanding its allegorical intentions will enhance one’s appreciation of what it’s going for.

Starting in 2014, mankind sought to combat global warming by releasing a chemical into the lower atmosphere, which instead went to the opposite extreme, freezing the Earth and causing the extinction of all life.  The last remnant of mankind exists in a massive, state-of-the-art, completely self-sustaining train endlessly winding its way through the frozen terrain.  Onboard, humanity has been divided by station, with the unwashed masses relegated to the tail and treated like cattle, while the powerful rule like seldom-seen dictators from the front section, led by Wilford (Ed Harris), an unseen, almost mythical figure.  One of the tail passengers, Curtis (Chris Evans) has been plotting a takeover for some time.  His audacious plan hinges on breaking out a security specialist, Nam (Kang-Ho Song) from the prisoner section and using him to open all gates leading to the front.  Curtis’ revolution gets farther than anyone before him, but there’s a lot of train to go through, and the journey to the front will involve brutal battles and some shocking revelations.

Snowpiercer‘s premise is flimsy (if everything else is frozen, why does a train still function?  How do they refuel?), but you either accept it or you don’t.  The train scenario is really just a vehicle to get across the movie’s allegorical meaning.  The divided sections of the train from tail to head serve as a metaphorical representation of humanity.  Aside from that, Snowpiercer has a lot of other stuff to say, about human nature, the costs of leadership, the ruthless methods necessary to maintaining a balanced ecosystem, and about what often happens to revolutionaries even if they win.  Snowpiercer doesn’t sugarcoat the bitter lessons that Curtis learns with his “victories”.  The quote “all revolutions devour their own children” comes to mind.  Even if Curtis “wins”, he and everyone else is still trapped on the train…just as, in the movie’s allegorical message, everyone is still trapped in a brutally unfair system created by unstoppable human nature.  It’s not exactly an uplifting or feel good thesis, and just in case the movie is ever too subtle (it isn’t), Ed Harris shows up late in the movie to basically deliver a monologue outlining the movie’s entire central theme. Snowpiercer says what it wants to say with a grim relentlessness that makes it understandable why major studios were leery of promoting it as the big summer action flick it has moments of resembling.

All it’s allegorical messaging doesn’t mean Snowpiercer is dull.  Quite the contrary, it’s action-packed, and its action scenes have a visceral kick, including a scene of carnage pitting Curtis’ band of revolutionaries against a small army of sword-wielding guards that vaguely recalls, of all things, Uma Thurman’s battle with the Crazy 88’s in Kill Bill.  The most exciting and extended action sequence though travels through several cars and pits Curtis and assorted comrades against a seemingly indestructible Wilford henchman (Vlad Ivanov).  Along the way, there are any number of striking scenes, including the tail passengers being momentarily blinded when they enter a car with windows after years of darkness, then their vision adjusts to the haunting, eerie scenes of frozen ghost towns drifting by outside.  Also visually striking is a sequence where they journey through a tunnel surrounded by a large aquarium, with fish and sting rays swimming around and above them, and, in the aftermath of a shootout, a solitary snowflake floating through a bullet hole in a train window.  There is a section containing a wild party scene that looks like we’ve suddenly wandered into The Great Gatsby.  It’s all a bit of a somewhat fragmented, sometimes borderline incoherent mess, but it’s a vibrant, vividly imagined, visceral and kinetic mess that’s always engaging and often fascinating.

The cast is somewhat eclectic.  A scruffy Chris Evans shows he can play more than Captain America, as a hero whose shining armor is considerably more tarnished than the morally stalwart comic book superhero.  His best scene is a quiet one late in the movie where he unloads his backstory and the horrific depths he and other tail passengers sank to in the name of survival.  John Hurt is the standard-issue “wise old man”, with Hurt’s delightful knack for taking corny dialogue and making it sound profound.  Ed Harris doesn’t show up until the last 20 minutes or so, but he plays the long-awaited Wilford not as a scenery-chewing villain, but as a matter-of-fact pragmatist who justifies his methods of maintaining the “ecosystem” with clear-eyed, unapologetic logic.  Also on hand is a diverse international collection including American Octavia Spencer, Brits Jamie Bell and Ewen Bremner, and South Koreans Kang-Ho Song and Ah-Sung Ko, all of whom are solid.  Arguably the most memorable—and certainly weirdest—performance is by an almost unrecognizable Tilda Swinton (complete with grotesque false teeth and a sniveling voice and mannerisms) as Wilford’s second-in-command.

Snowpiercer won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and the storyline serves as a vehicle for its grim social commentary, but it’s fast-paced, visually striking, and thought-provoking allegory that can provoke in-depth discussion among its viewers without sacrificing adrenaline or some conventional movie elements like action and heroism.  It’s admirable to find a movie that is saying something (I’ll take a flawed experiment with substance like Snowpiercer over a vapid conventional blockbuster like the Transformers series any day), and its independent background and lack of major studio interference may have been the best thing that happened to it.  The ending, while not without an ambiguous note of hope, is far more downbeat than what we’d find in a more mainstream, more studio-molded version.  In the end, Snowpiercer may be less than the sum of its parts and cool ideas, but it’s compulsively engaging and fascinating, even when it doesn’t always make sense in a conventional narrative fashion.  It took me a while to assemble my thoughts well enough to figure out exactly what I thought of it, but I don’t regret dedicating two hours to watching it, and the time spent afterward thinking about it.

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