Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, 2014): A Dystopian Future in Motion

I didn’t expect a lot from Snowpiercer. In all fairness, I knew very little about it before I watched it, other than my best friend insisting I watched it because ‘Tilda Swinton oh my god…’ This friend and I differ hugely in our tastes regarding films, so I automatically assumed that Snowpiercer would not be my kind of film. I was surprised, shocked and left reeling. In a good way, of course.

The focus of Snowpiercer is an enormous train with tracks which span the frozen globe, carrying the last of humanities survivors on-board. Chris Evans is Curtis Everett, a disillusioned member of the metaphorical proletariat who inhabit the rear-end of the train. The rich (ahem bourgeois) live towards the front of the train. The two never meet. Throwing together Marxist propaganda, themed train carriages, axe-fighting martial arts sequences and a colourful Tilda Swinton, it really does seem like the beginnings of some odd theatre production. Particularly as it is set on a swiftly moving train. The Guardian review got it pretty much spot on with ‘absurdist theatre’. Snowpiercer is a phenomenal mash-up of Korean visual style and Westernised dialogue. It’s quite clear that Park Chan-wook (producer of Snowpiercer, director of Oldboy) has had a huge influence on director Bong Joon-ho, visually and narratively. Whilst at times, this crossover of genres and cultural identity can be jarring, it allows us to focus on elements of the film that we possibly wouldn’t have if it had been made by a blockbuster director (I’m looking at you 2012 and all the other terrible apocalypse films).

By some, Snowpiercer has been hailed as ‘Movie of the year’ and it’s not too hard to see why. It feels effortless in it’s depiction of a dystopian future. Boon Joon-ho utilizes the the tight spaces of the trains rear end to intensify the feelings of claustrophobia. It feels desperate, it feels dirty. Throughout the journey to the front of the train, the cinematography and production design keep us staring in wonderment at the screen. We never know what will be in the next carriage awaiting Curtis and the rebels. From a miniature school, to nightclub boppers to the eventual reveal of Wilford – we are never really sure what is happening. All we know is we are going forward, and this linear journey is aided by the tight visuals and exploitation of design in each carriage. Each carriage feels like a different world, and we look upon it with confused eyes in a similar vein to how Curtis does.

Chris Evans is great as the moody Curtis, and both Ed Harris and John Hurt bring great performances to the table, but Tilda Swinton’s performance as Mason is something else entirely. Mason is essentially the physical apparition of Wilford – enacting his punishments and rewards onto the people of the train. I would say she is an amalgamation of Dolores Umbridge and Effie Trinket in terms of villainy and looks respectively, but this renders her too soft. She is almost a caricature, yet remains grounded in this heightened reality that Snowpiercer is set in. Swinton plays her as borderline insane, possibly the individual who has been most driven to craziness by life on the train, but we truly believe her performance.  She’s nasty and foul, but mesmerizing.

The strength of Snowpiercer is that it is fresh, new and exciting. It’s so highly stylized and the fight scenes are so well choreographed that it avoids either becoming boring or a bad homage to other post-apocalyptic films. It’s gritty, it’s gross (cockroaches???) and it implores you to suspend your disbelief about how long this train is or any other element you might not totally believe in. Snowpiercer does rely on a massive suspension of disbelief, because there are several unexplained things. How many people are on this train? Were they all on it when the world froze? Did Wilford go and pick up the proletariat mob when he realised he would need them? Why does he need them? Perpetual motion??? The thing is, Snowpiercer really does take you on such an extraordinary ride (excuse the pun), that you just don’t mind not knowing all the answers.

It’s true that the dialogue is often clunky and feels like an odd fit. This is often the case with transnational cinema; the crossover of two cultures create jarring moments within Snowpiercer. The fight sequences predominantly use knives, axes and hand to hand combat as is typical of Korean cinema, but it focuses on the singular white saviour’s struggle with himself – a very Westernised concept. Snowpiercer rarely does what you expect it to, and whilst you spend most of the film thinking you already know the ending, it still surprises you. I’d say this is largely a result of the combination of the Westernised post apocalyptic rebellion film with Korean stylization, and it does work – for the most part. One particularly disappointing aspect of Snowpiercer, however, was it’s handling of the female characters. Octavia Spencer gives a phenomenal performance with the dialogue and character she is given, but that is precisely the problem. The other female character is played by Ah-sung Ko, and between the two of them they cover the mother/daughter representation. We have already discussed Tilda Swinton’s performance ( and that is not to be undermined) but it it’s sad that both Spencer and Ko couldn’t have been given a bigger purpose than simply as the mother of a stolen child and the daughter of the train’s security engineer. By the end, Yona (Ah-sung Ko) has truly transcended the virgin daughter, and become a mother herself – only Yona and the young boy remain.

The truth is that the  basic concept of Snowpiercer is simple and arguably unoriginal. We have seen dozens of films that document the struggle of the proletariat, a rebellion and an uprising. Curtis is the typical leader – he does not choose to lead, the group chooses him (‘the chosen one’ trope’). If we choose to view Snowpiercer as a Marxist dialogue, calling for economic and social justice, then it becomes a well crafted film about political inequality in our society and the futile attempts to disrupt it. This is appropriate and interesting but not new or ground breaking. Instead, we can choose to view Snowpiercer as a nihilistic view of humanity, a film about the destruction of the human race and the hopelessness about our future on Earth. Snowpiercer’s final moments help to seal this as the films true message. Two children, alone in the ice…with a polar bear for company. I’m not sure how anyone can read that as anything other than imminent death, but it works in total compliance with Wilford’s ideology. Balance. In Wilford’s speech to Curtis, he reiterates the importance of balance, and everything staying the same (“So it is”). It is here we realise that humanity has no purpose. There is nowhere to go and nothing to do, other than ride the endless train complete with varying degrees of suffering until they all eventually die. We have seen what humanity has to offer in each train compartment – and it doesn’t seem worth saving. So Namgoong does the only logical thing. Wilford wants it to stay the same, Curtis wants change. If you want to go full Marxist, there is no change without destroying the establishment and so that is what Namgoong does. The train is society, without it humanity can finally die.

Snowpiercer is the neatest sci-fi film I have seen this year. Any film which provides hours of discussion post-watching is worth it’s weight. Snowpiercer doesn’t fail to impress or to stir up a frenzy of ‘what-ifs’ for weeks afterwards.

Also, if you (like me) are still wondering about the anatomy of the train, here is a handydiagram explaining it.

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