Directed by: Bong Joon-ho
Premise: Set in a post-apocalyptic future in which Earth has frozen, the remaining survivors of humanity live on board an apparently self-sustaining train. The poor passengers are constrained to the rear cars while more affluent passengers live lives of luxury in the front. A discontent rear passenger (Chris Evans) leads a campaign to take control of the engine.
What Works: Snowpiercer recalls the science fiction movies of Paul Verhoeven and George A. Romero such as Total Recall and The Crazies. Like those films, Snowpiercer provides an entertaining story that is also a thought-provoking metaphor for society. The premise of Snowpiercer is loaded with possibilities in which the haves control society and suppress the have-nots, relegating them to the back of the train. The members of the lower class attempt to wrestle control of the engine of their locomotive society, both literally and figuratively, and as they pass through the cars they also work through the layers of society’s infrastructure. Snowpiercer is a violent picture but it makes the viewer think about that violence. Director Joon-ho Bong makes a lot of interesting filmmaking choices with the violence, such as a large fight sequence involving edged weapons. Instead of going for blood and guts, the filmmakers establish the sharpness of the blades and from then on the soundtrack conveys the impact of the weapons on human flesh. These fight sequences are also impactful because they come with a human cost. The problem of so many contemporary action movies, such as the Transformers series and some comic book films like Man of Steel, is that there is a lot of destruction but no humanity and so nothing is ever at stake. The revolution of Snowpiercer requires sacrifice and characters are forced to make choices between saving their comrades and the good of the revolution and that gives the movie substance. For this kind of high concept action movie, Snowpiercer has some notable performances. Chris Evans plays the leader of the revolution and he successfully carries the dramatic weight of the story. Tilda Swinton plays a member of the upper class and she is also terrific, playing the part with just the right amount of camp without getting cartoonish. The filmmakers of Snowpiercer allow themselves to go a little bonkers in a school room scene in which Allison Pill is featured as the teacher and Pill manages to be all smiles and rainbows while saying and doing horrible things.
What Doesn’t: As interesting as the metaphor of Snowpiercer is, the movie may leave the viewer wanting a bit more from it. In imagining society as a train, the filmmakers omit certain critical aspects, such as the living quarters of the upper class passengers. The concept raises other questions as well such as what these people, especially the wealthy, do all day. It’s demonstrated that the wealthy live hedonistic lives but it’s also established that these people have been on the train for nearly two decades. There’s no economic apparatus that sustains the social stratification on the train, just the brute force of the soldiers keeping the poor in their place, and there’s no activity or common purpose that gives meaning to these people’s lives. By comparison, Metropolis and Soylent Green envisioned a society in which everyone was involved in an industry that kept people busy and distracted them from the injustices around them. The real problem here is not simply that the world of Snowpiercer suffers logical lapses (although it does) but that it is oversimplified. The poor are good and the rich are evil and the class conflict is no more complex than that. The ending of Snowpiercer is also flawed. The movie does have a satisfactory climax but there are fundamental questions left unanswered such as the fates of the main characters and what befalls humanity after the finale.
Bottom Line: Snowpiercer is a very good film, one that matches a high concept story with action movie thrills and smart social commentary. The movie has its flaws but it’s an ambitious film that mostly delivers on its potential.
Episode: #499 (July 13, 2014)