Imagine the claustrophobia and last-man standing dystopia of Battlestar Galactica married to the comedic oppression of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Now imagine all of that is stuck on a train. That’s Snowpiercer.
In a weird twist of fate, the United States is one of the last places on Earth in which the sci-fi movie Snowpiercer (an international project spanning Korea, the US and Europe) is getting an official release. It won’t hit American theatres until next month, but I’m not in America, so let’s roll.
Snowpiercer, directed by Bong Joon-ho (The Host), is based on a comic by Jean-Marc Rochette, called Le Transperceneige. The story is set in the near-future, where an attempt to halt global warming via chemical intervention goes pear-shaped, plunging the world into a brutal ice age where everyone on the planet is killed.
Everyone except the passengers on a single train, the Snowpiercer, which loops the world once a year, travelling fast enough (and with enough equipment inside) to keep everyone onboard alive.
This train is not a happy place. At least, not for the plebs stuck in the rear sections. See, the Snowpiercer being the last vestige of human society, it’s not just a train, it’s a metaphor. At the very front of the train are the rich, who paid for their tickets and live a life of luxury. They also call the shots, and are a little bit crazy. Behind them is the coach section. Behind them, well. Back there are the passengers who got themselves onboard, without a ticket. The refugees. And their life, from brutal police oversight to processed prison food, is not great.
Snowpiercer’s story follows Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) as he leads a rebellion against this inequality. It’s as video gamey as a movie is going to get; they start at the back and have to fight their way up the train, carriage by carriage, and the further they get, the harder it gets.
That’s about it. This isn’t a complex tale. You will not scream at your TV in shock, or cry out in anguish as a twist takes a turn and leaves you wondering how the hell that happened. The rebels move from the back to the front and lots of people die.
Most of the performances are pretty forgettable. Evans phones it in as Heroic Leader (one moving revelation near the end excepted), and his stereotypical buddies don’t add much either. A pair of Korean actors, Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung, do much better as a drug-addled security expert and his crazy daughter, who the rebels need to usher up the train in order to unlock all the carriages. Song plays the addled genius well, while Go adds a touch of fragility to a movie that’s mostly about people being killed with blunt instruments.
But it’s Tilda Swinton, who I am shocked to see is now in her fifties, who steals the show as the bumbling Mason (above), cheerleader for the ruling elite. From her outfit to her teeth to her northern accent, she’s the perfect personification of a power structure that, with only a handful of people to rule and even less to protect it, is almost comical in its ineptitude.
The real star, though, is the train. It’s a meticulous work of fiction, well-planned and even better-designed, revealing itself slowly over the course of the movie. With the entire world outside reduced to ice, the train is everything, so from the opening (in the cramped caboose) to the very end (at the spacious engine), all I wanted to do was see more of the train, see how it all worked.
I got what I was after. I haven’t read the comic, so I don’t know how detailed it gets, but the movie revels in moving up the train and making sure that every single scene is set somewhere interesting, somewhere that doesn’t just form a background to the story, but helps tell the story of the train.
The film’s trailers spoil a little of the spectacle that unfolds the further the rebels get, but suffice to say that if you want to see the nitty-gritty on how humanity stays alive on a train that never stops, you’ll get your answer and then some.
I mentioned Brazil in the opening because, for all the despair on show, like Gilliam’s classic Snowpiercer – despite the dire setting – never bottoms out to bum you out. It’s an almost light-hearted take on the end of the world. Nobody is sick, nobody is starving, everything (well, everything except perhaps the film’s stand-out fight scene) is well-lit. The bad guys aren’t menacing, they’re hilarious. The fight scenes revel in their gore, one in particular going so overboard I was laughing by the end of it.
This robs it of a little of its sense of consequence – you never get the feeling like you do in Battlestar that, hey, this is really the end of the line – but whatever. That’s not the kind of movie this is. It might have a dire setting and some serious issues, but at its heart this movie is the kind of left-field take on sci-fi that we haven’t seen done this well since The Fifth Element.