Through a happy coincidence, a friend invited me over to watch the English-language Korean release of the sci-fi thriller Snowpiercer. The US distribution rights have been purchased by The Weinstein Company and it’s scheduled for a US release on June 27, so this review is of what’s possibly a slightly different version (though industry buzz is that the changes that TWC asked director Bong Joon Ho to make were all rejected).
I’m a sucker for apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic movies, as I have written about before, whether the plague is zombies, alien invasions, pandemics or just vague nuclear warfare. There’s something about prying open the veneer of civilization to see what’s inside that I find quite fascinating.
Snowpiercer, however, can’t decide whether it is a socially aware post-apocalyptic movie or a horror film and instead tries to meld the two with only limited success. Based on the acclaimed 1982 French graphic novel La Transperceneige, the film begins with a series of radio broadcasts that explain that the nations of the world got together to combat global warming by seeding the clouds with a chemical called CW-7. It backfires and the entire world is plummeted into an ice age.
Everyone dies, everything is a frozen wasteland, except the lucky people who were on Snowpiercer, a self-contained 1001-car long train that continually circumnavigates the globe.
The majority of the film takes place 17 years after the disaster and the train’s first, second and third class accommodations have devolved into a very strange universe where the wealthy enjoy the luxuries of the front cars while the rabble, the great unwashed are trapped by force into the last grouping of cars, dirty, angry, kept at bay by armed guards, and fed gelatinous bars of protein (you don’t want to know how they’re made but you’ll find out anyway).
The leaders of the downtrodden are the young, headstrong Curtis (Chris Evans) and the wise old Gilliam (John Hurt). Curtis and his buddy Edgar (Jamie Bell) are fed up with their terrible treatment and are determined to storm the front cars of the train and take over, regardless of the cost. When the weird Mason (Tilda Swinton) shows up with a retinue of guards to take a couple of under-5 children, the class war erupts, and when Gilliam is killed, Curtis wreaks his revenge by murdering Mason in cold blood. Class warfare is rough stuff.
Clearly, Snowpiercer is a parable about class struggle and the desire of those at the bottom of the economic ladder to climb their way up, or to drag everyone else down to their level. In that regard, the film succeeds admirably, though each group of cars that Curtis and his forces traverse seem more like conceptual stage sets like “barracks”, “armory”, “meat storage”, “pool” and “classroom” than actual cars on a perpetually moving train. The logic of the story is left far behind and the more it proceeds, the less the film makes sense.
As Curtis moves forward, he encounters the mysterious Namgoong Minsu (Kang-ho Song) and his daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko). Minsu, we learn, designed the security system on the train before he became a drug addict. With a handy supply of what would be called “soma” in a different dystopic story, Minsu proves critical to their ability to breech security doors and continue their forward journey towards Wilford (Ed Harris), the leader of the train’s self-contained civilization.
There are sections of the train that are horrifying, and at least one area where a mass of security guards block the rebels progress, causing absolute bloody mayhem, much of which transpires in pitch darkness. They are the enforcers of every totalitarian government brought to life, and indeed, there’s much from the dark, forbidding world of Orwell’s 1984 that is mirrored in various sections of the train, also notably the children’s classroom.
Ultimately, though, Snowpiercer doesn’t live up to its hype, proving too self-conscious and with a narrative that makes increasingly little sense. While the story is audacious, the execution is weak and the film runs out of steam in the last reel. Oh, and the ending? Makes absolutely no sense.
If you’re a fan of South Korean films or popular director Bong Joon Ho, you might well enjoy it (it does have a good rating on IMDb) but if you’re looking for a satisfying post-apocalyptic adventure, this isn’t the film for you.