Rare is the film that deftly weaves masterful storytelling, gripping action sequences, precise acting performances, and a biting social commentary on class warfare. Look no further than “Snowpiercer” to deliver all these elusive elements perfectly distilled and combined into what is perhaps a bravura masterpiece from acclaimed Korean auteur, Bong Joon-Ho. Adapted from the relatively obscure French graphic novel series originally titled “Le Transperceneige” created by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette, director Bong (who helmed previous hits such as “Mother”, “Memories Of Murder”, and “The Host”) bravely took the source material and by bucking against typical Hollywood filmmaking restrictions, he has delivered a tour-de-force experience that can comfortably rest alongside the greatest science-fiction films in cinematic history. Period.
But first, let’s get up to speed with the basic premise of the movie. In 2014, the governments of the world decided to finally rally against global warming by spraying the atmosphere with a chemical substance known as CW-7 which was designed to lower scorching temperatures. Yet in a surprising twist that echoes Queen Elsa’s emotional outburst that sent her kingdom into a wintry oblivion in “Frozen”, the environmental scheme backfired and permanently transformed Earth into giant ice ball devoid of life. But that’s where the parallels to the 2013 Disney film end because apparently, a single eccentric billionaire industrialist named Wilford (Ed Harris) figured out that CW-7 was a total dud from the get-go and decided he would become a modern day Noah by constructing a massive train to salvage the few remnants of humanity. To cap it all off, the train’s creator built an astonishing railway track that completely circles the globe and outfitted his locomotive with a perpetual-motion engine. This means that the train—which Wilford christened as the Snowpiercer—will eternally circumnavigate the planet amidst the unforgiving and cold landscape of a now-dead Earth.
And if you think that’s already a depressing scenario for a dystopian science-fiction film, it gets even worse. Within the train’s confines, the malevolent aspects of humanity have reared its ugly head as a caste system evolved where the privileged few who managed to purchase tickets aboard the Snowpiercer commandeered the Front Section and forced the desperate crowd of underprivileged stowaways into the Tail Section where they are not granted access to the luxurious amenities on the train. Seventeen years after the disastrous “CW-7 Snowpocalypse”, the poverty-stricken passengers of the Tail Section decide to stage a major uprising against the tyrannical Front Section and the might of Wilford—whom the arrogant elites in the Front venerate as a supposedly benevolent Messianic figure that guards the perpetual-motion engine that they highly consider as a sacred object akin to worshipping a religious relic that must never be blasphemed lest the momentum of the train be compromised.
But all that is about to change thanks to the determined but highly reluctant leadership of a Tail Sectioner named Curtis (Chris Evans) and his ragtag team of allies from the train’s caboose: his younger and hotheaded second-in-command, Edgar (Jamie Bell); single parents Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and Andrew (Ewen Bremner); an imprisoned Korean security expert Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-Ho) and his teenage daughter, Yona (Ko Asung); and the Tail Section’s chief elder, Gilliam (John Hurt) with his bodyguard, Grey (Luke Pasqualino). Desiring better living conditions aboard the nonstop transport, Curtis intends to take over the revered Engine Section as he believes that if he and his cohorts control the engine, they can “control the world”. But that mission is easier said than done when he and his intrepid team have to face Wilford’s formidable army spearheaded by his trusted prime minister, the megalomaniacal Mason (Tilda Swinton), who might just be the demented bastard love child of Jadis the White Witch from “The Chronicles of Narnia” and Dolores Umbridge from the “Harry Potter” series.
From the point where the Tail violently engages with the Front for supremacy, the film moves forward at a relentless pace that leaves viewers hanging at the edge of their seats. Bong’s meticulous style of direction is evident in every single frame as the scenes of “Snowpiercer” unfold very much like a dynamic video game. This makes sense considering that the gritty protagonists have to push and fight their way forward to encounter multiple sections of the train that they have never set foot on and are appropriately placed with unexpectedly effective bosses that they must defeat before they can proceed to the next stage of their journey.
On a production value standpoint, it is rather extraordinary to note that this film was made on a relatively modest budget of $39.2 million (chump change in Hollywood finances) and yet Bong and his filmmaking collaborators managed to make “Snowpiercer” look more expensive than, say, the first installment of “The Hunger Games”. Granted, the exterior CGI world of a frozen Earth may be a bit iffy to some, but this is a rather negligible throwaway when you consider how the interiors of the train were painstakingly designed. Beginning with the Tail Section that basically looks like a typical third-world slum neighborhood compressed into a cramped metal railway box, the reveal of the succeeding cars in the Front Section is nothing short of breathtaking. A verdant greenhouse where old ladies go to do their knitting, an aquarium complete with a sushi bar, a brainwashing facility by way of an acid-bright children’s classroom, a super-large meat freezer stocked with hanging beef and poultry, a posh lounge area with a chic beauty salon, a hedonistic nightclub car with an adjacent recreational drug room—these are just some of the marvelous areas of the Snowpiercer that subtly represents everything wrong with the affluent members of society today.
Perhaps it is also worth noting that Bong wisely chose to be inspired by key elements of the source material rather than faithfully adapting “Le Transperceneige” as other book-to-screen films produced by a corporate Hollywood are wont to do. What Bong has largely taken from the French graphic novels is the humanistic and grounded subject of social stratification and disparity, which is the central theme that underscores the rattling heartbeat of “Snowpiercer”. The haves versus the have-nots, first class oppressing the lower class, the 99 percent versus the 1 percent, rich against the poor—it is a classic battle that has always been at the forefront of human history and continues to be explored in fictional works, most recently in another similar sci-fi tale of social inequality by Neill Blomkamp which was “Elysium”. Though it was technically brilliant and entertaining to say the least, “Elysium” ultimately failed by its sloppy execution of the plot and portrayal of its characters, and it is in these filmmaking fundamentals where “Snowpiercer” blessedly succeeded.
Needless to say, one of the film’s strongest facets has to be the performances of the pitch-perfect ensemble cast of international actors that Bong has selected to make his story come to life. Fans of Captain America might be surprised to see Chris Evans looking like a scruffy train hobo replete with a thick lumberjack beard and tattered clothes, but his role as the taciturn Curtis makes a rather convincing case that the Marvel Studios stud is more than just your All-American pretty boy as he gives a rather bracing performance that showcases his range as a dramatic actor. As for the supporting roles, everyone basically brought their A-game for Bong’s English-language debut film, though perhaps nobody comes close to the chameleonic Tilda Swinton who effortlessly delivers a rather repulsive antagonist in Minister Mason that is at once cartoonish and nightmarish but thoroughly enjoyable (which are, in my opinion, the hallmarks of a scene-stealing villain).
Bong isn’t the kind of director who minces his visions nor does he shy away from showcasing extreme scenarios to make a statement in his films, and this is the reason why “Snowpiercer” works on so many levels. Had this kind of movie been presented to a typical Hollywood studio for financing, “Snowpiercer” likely wouldn’t exist at all or if it did, it would be completely watered down and tailored to resemble a paint-by-numbers type of summer blockbuster that just wants to make a quick buck and ultimately bereft of any intellectual substance. Which brings me to another strong point of “Snowpiercer” that must be commended: it is the kind of movie that does not insult the intelligence of the viewer. Very much like high-concept sci-fi films like “Inception” or “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, “Snowpiercer” contains an impressive wealth of details within its dystopian and claustrophobic locomotive universe that can be easily understood by an average moviegoer.
Admittedly, the film’s climactic third act may come across as polarizing to some viewers, and eagle-eyed cinema lovers watching this part may strongly compare the long-awaited confrontation of Curtis and Wilford to that of Neo and The Architect in “The Matrix Reloaded” (which I hope I am not alone in this perception). Regardless of the unpredictable denouement of the movie that may generate heated debates between audiences, “Snowpiercer” refuses to compromise with its ultimate resolution and for that, I am greatly thankful that such artistic integrity has been kept largely intact.
Overall, director Bong Joon-Ho has perhaps outdone himself with his latest work, and the mostly positive critical buzz surrounding the film is completely justified given how the entire thing worked on an epically grand scale that easily overshadows big-budget blockbusters created by the studio system of Hollywood. Intense, unyielding, and richly satisfying from start to finish, “Snowpiercer” is the perfect tonic to cleanse your cinematic palate from all the typical garbage being screened in today’s movie theaters, and count yourself thankful that watching thought-provoking stories like this continue to strengthen the future of visionary cinema.
“Snowpiercer” premiered in the Philippines on January 29, 2014 and is now currently screening in cinemas across the country and is distributed by Multivision Pictures Philippines.