South Korean director Joon-ho Bung makes the transition to English language cinema with Snowpiercer, a dystopian sci-fi and the transition and resulting film is largely a success. The defining feature of Snowpiercer is that it is loaded, and I mean loaded, with social and political allegory impressively so for a blockbuster. It is partly that what keeps the film’s narrative chugging along and helps it to remain engaging. But here, have a brief plot summary:
It is the future, and it’s a little bit chilly. Thanks some climate change deniers and some mishap involving a chemical the Earth froze over and became inhabitable, think Frozen on an apocalyptic scale. Humanity is all but extinct, save for a train that runs infinitely around the world. The train has a troubled history that resulted in the last few carriages being reserved for an underclass that sit and wait (not work) in their own squalor while the people who got first dibs on the train ride in style. At the front is the mysterious creator of this super train, called Wilford. Among the other passengers – underclass and others – he is seen as an almost God-like figure. It has been 17 years since the Earth got cold (so cold that one dies after only a couple of minutes of exposure) and man named Curtis (played by Chris Evans, of Captain America fame) decides to lead a revolt through the train.
The defining feature of Snowpiercer is that is loaded with social and political allegory impressively so for a blockbuster
Like all good sci-fi films, Snowpiercer is packed with great concepts that ultimately reflect more contemporary problems, albeit in an abstract way. The frozen Earth, the infinite train hurtling towards an uncertain future, the social segregation, representations of history and many more are all little parts that add up to a great and satisfying whole. I’d like to note one amazing scene in particular, perhaps the biggest violent clash of the film which takes place in the dark and it is pulled of spectacularly, yet still remains rooted in character. Take note Robocop (2014). This clash takes place roughly in the middle of the film and without giving too much away, the film does a good job of punctuating the film with action scenes, making the whole thing move along at a jolly pace. The acting parts (done by actors) also add up to something greater, of course we have Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton who play their parts pretty well and both offer something different. There are also people like John Hurt, who helps add art house gravitas to the film, due to his 1984 and V for Vendetta connections, and…well I won’t spoil who plays Wilford.
As blockbusters go, it is very impressively constructed and well thought out. The socio-politcal edge mostly works and really comes into its own during the final act of the film. It begs the ultimate question for apocalyptic dystopias: “Is humanity even worth preserving?” portentous I know, and perhaps not to make the audience too sad it leaves the answer a resounding “maybe”.
The train however acts as a condensed metaphor for these questions of humanity, social segregation, and economics. The conclusion and justification offered by Wilford is that “everyone has their place” and Tilda Swinton’s character (who is brilliant for every second she is on screen) says that a “shoe remains a shoe”. Basically, they argue that the train can only survive – and by extension humanity – if everyone has a place. The poor – who are fed junk – stay at the back in squalid conditions and the affluent drink cocktails and eat proper food. The rich seemingly live in a paradise and it is Curtis’ mission to “take the engine” as that is how all previous revolutions failed, thus turning his revolution into a politically charged one by subverting the class system. In real world terms, the film is attacking modern day capitalism and the severe inequality and alienation that arise from it and its apparently “natural” tenants. Additionally, there are obvious parallels to Dante’s The Divine Comedy and journey from Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. So hopefully I have realigned the film in a way you can at least get a glimpse of how it differs to modern CGI blockbusters. Make no mistake, it still is a CGI blockbuster, but it arrives there from much more intelligent groundwork and execution.
..they argue that the train can only survive – and by extension humanity – if everyone has a place.
Not that it is without problems; the most glaringly obvious flaw with Snowpiercer is that it considers logic to be, at the very least, unimportant. This can probably be explained because of time constraints in the film, but some of the common criticisms levelled at Snowpiercer are things like: “How do they get meat, where are the cows and chickens? We never see the carriage they are on!” but they never really detract from the core enjoyment of the film because to explain those things would weigh it down and ruin the pretty solid pacing. For some people though, these logical inconsistencies may turn one against the film.