Review: Snowpiercer (2013)

If only every summer science-fiction blockbuster was as inventive as Snowpiercer we’d be living in a much more interesting world. The latest film from Korean master Bong Joon-ho, Snowpiercer is mad, daring, and left me feeling more exhilarated than any other film this summer. In many ways it’s a movie version of the great video game, BioShock, taking placing in a closed, post-apocalyptic ecosystem run by an egomaniacal genius and breaking society down into strict social classes. Snowpiercer is full of allegorical commentary ripe for political aficionados to unpack, but it’s also virtuoso filmmaking. Most excitingly, it’s genuinely original, not just in its content, but in its structure and its filmmaking.

Snowpiercer takes place in the near-future where environmental scientists tried to combat climate change and ended up inadvertently freezing the world. All that remains of humanity lives on a train that circumnavigates the globe once a year. At the tail section live society’s rejects, people who couldn’t afford to pay for passage on the train. At the front live society’s richest and the train’s creator, Wilford. In between are all manner of fantastical cars, from an aquarium car fit with a sushi bar to a rave club decked out in neon.

Curtis (Chris Evans) is the defacto leader of the people living in the tail section. At the beginning of the film we find him in the midst of planning a revolt. Along with his second-in-command Edgar (Jamie Bell), fellow passenger Tanya (Octavia Spencer), and his mentor Gilliam (John Hurt), he intends on breaking into the security car to free Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho), a security expert who’ll then be able to open all the gates to the front of the train.

The opening moments of Snowpiercer depict Curtis’s preparations in great detail. Namgoong is an addict, so Curtis has to trade items for pieces of kronole, a synthetic drug made on the train, which he intends to bribe Namgoong with. Soldiers from the front of the train periodically come to the tail section to count the population and hand out protein bars. When two children are plucked from the tail population for work at the front, some of the tail passengers attack the soldiers. Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), Wilford’s second-in-command, has one of the passengers punished in a cruel and unusual way. They shove his arm out the door for seven minutes until it freezes solid. Then they bring it back inside and smash it with a hammer. Bong depicts the punishment as business as usual. As an audience we’re horrified by the sight of a massive hammer shattering a man’s frozen arm, but the characters in the film are unfazed by it. It’s just another casual injustice.

Eventually Curtis and the other tail passengers revolt and Snowpiercer begins to blossom with invention. Four cars up the train, Curtis and his men find themselves face to face with a cabin full of armoured and armed soldiers, brandishing axes and spears. Curtis stands there facing the soldiers as the soldiers pass forward a fish, slicing open its innards and bathing their blades in its blood. It’s a seeming non sequitur, but it plays into Bong’s bizarre sense of humour. Later on the battle, Curtis even slips on the fish, a slapstick fall amidst brutal violence. This is how things proceed. Tonal imbalances and unexpected humour abound.

Snowpiercer is billed as an action film and although moments of violence are only scattered throughout, scenes like the aforementioned battle embrace the geometry of the space and create riveting moments of bloodshed. Bong’s camera occasionally feels claustrophobic, as the train is a spatially-limited set that forces certain compositions, but for the most part, his camera creates the sense of relentless forward momentum. During the fight with the soldiers, the camera tracks Curtis as he moves forward in the compartment, reminiscent of the famous hallway fight in Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (Park serves as a producer on Snowpiercer). The fight briefly pauses for the passengers to observe the arrival of a new year, before it continues with the soldiers donning night vision goggles and Mason killing the lights. This one fight scene has more inventive action than all the Marvel films combined.

Invention is what defines Snowpiercer and makes it so exhilarating. As the characters progress from one car to another and discover new bizarre aspects of this closed world, Bong keeps reinventing the world, as if the storyworld is recreating itself as it progresses.

The film’s structure reminded me of The Turn of the Screw, which is a strange connection to make, but one that I believe demonstrates how the film is able to exponentially increase tension and momentum as the story progresses. Instead of conforming to three acts that branch out with subplots before narrowing to provide closure, Snowpiercer utilizes a tunnel structure that intensifies the focus as the story proceeds. The opening titles gives us the context for the story, much like Douglas’s retelling of the manuscript at the beginning of The Turn of the Screw. We then arrive on the train, and the story merely moves forward, narrowing its focus while constantly creating new moments for suspense and mythology in each new car.

In the tail section, we have no sense of what the rest of the train is like, and so the possibilities of the storyworld are endless. However, as each new car is revealed, the possibilities for the world shrink and the focus starts to narrow onto Wilford and the front of the train, much like how the governess’s concerns in The Turn of the Screw shrink until she only cares about the ghosts tormenting her. What this structure accomplishes is psychological focus amidst ample worldbuilding. It foregrounds momentum in a way conventional structures don’t. The possibilities of the train seem endless, but we also know there’s only one place this film can end: at the front.

The design of the train is a triumph of art direction. The characters are lively creations. Chris Evans grounds the fancifulness of the other characters with a brooding performance. If he weren’t the dependable, muted foundation of the story, Swinton and Song wouldn’t be able to dazzle with their colourful performances.

Snowpiercer is set on a dead planet where the few characters that remain are stuck in a closed environment, but even so, it’s a livelier, larger film than any other I’ve seen this year.

9 out of 10

Snowpiercer (2013, South Korea)

Directed by Bong Joon-ho; written by Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson with a screen story by Bong Joon-ho based off Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette; starring Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Go Ah-sung, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, and Ed Harris.