Snowpiercer – Bong-Joon Ho, 2014
The story of a revolutionary power-struggle onboard a train carrying the last survivors of humanity after an attempt to arrest global-warming goes very wrong and kills of the rest of life on Earth. The train travels around the Earth using a ‘perpetual motion machine’ for the sake of the narrative, and those onboard are destined to live out their lives stuck in a brutal caste system based on where they dwell on the train.
Cryptic messages begin to incite ‘Curtis’, the latent leader of the brutally oppressed denizens of the ‘tail’ to rise up and try and seize the front of the train from the regime that controls them. Tilda Swinton plays the bizarrely drab spokeswoman for the mythical ‘Wilford’ – who seems, at the start something of a Oz type character – a semi-deity that gives them life from up front in the ‘sacred engine’
We’ve seen a few of these types of sci-fi movies before – The Matrix springs to mind – with it’s steam-punky representation of once well-to-do people, meant to represent the remnants of Western Society reduced to a sort of Burning Man population – dressed up like Mad Max characters in leather and bangles but still managing to look buff and crustily attractive.
There’s some of that here but it’s undercut a lot by the Director’s non-Hollywood origin – and he doesn’t simply follow the ‘Messianic White Guy saves humanity’ template left there by so many other movies.. without wanting to spoil the plot I’ll leave it at that.
One thing that’s always bothers me about nearly every post-apocalyptic sci-fi film that gets released (and there are dozens, we just love killing ourselves off) is that they use the pretext of a global holocaust as merely a ‘cool’ plot point so that they can show lots of CGI of devastated cities, overgrown and reclaimed by nature – as if that forgives us for destroying the planet we still have.
Snowpiercer goes deeper than that in a few respects – giving us insights into the human cost of what it would mean to be a survivor in that world and it’s very brutal at times without resorting to gore. There’s plenty of action too, some of it in slow-motion with blood that’s actually the colour of blood for a change but it never just turns into a string of dumb, fanboy-pleasing set-pieces.
Often in these kind of action-journey pictures it’s pretty easy to tell who will make it and who won’t. Snowpiercer nicely subverts this trope and after setting-up the tough-as-nails world of the train doesn’t simply betray it and lead us to a nice jolly ending.. Spielberg’s War of the Worlds springs immediately to mind.. along the way the characters’ back stories and motivations are revealed to us adding up to a solidly rounded-out, character-driven piece which isn’t quite what you expect..
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Running time: 126 minutes
Languages: French, Japanese, English, Korean
Screenplay: Kelly Masterson, Bong Joon-ho