From the director of The Host comes Snowpiercer, a thrilling action parable
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From the director of The Host comes Snowpiercer, a thrilling action parable

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Snowpiercer

Director: Bong Joon-ho
Runtime: 126 minutes
Rating: R
Cast: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Ed Harris

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The near future: A cooling agent called CW7 is introduced into the atmosphere to combat global warming. It backfires, rendering the planet uninhabitable. Most of the Earth’s population freezes to death. The survivors live aboard a high-speed train—built by an eccentric billionaire before the ice age—where all necessities flow front to back. Wastewater from the first-class cars close to the engine is filtered to make drinking water for the third-class passengers living in squalor in the back of the train. Industrial waste is refined into a huffable drug called Kronol. Occasionally, bloody uprisings sweep the rear cars, but never cross the midsection, because the train’s design ensures that any position overtaken by the revolters will only affect their own people.

This is the premise of Bong Joon-ho’s grim, grimy Snowpiercer, and if it sounds more like a political metaphor than a functional society, it’s because it is. The film, Bong’s English-language debut, is a violent sci-fi action flick that lets its anarchist leanings take over in the final act. It plays like a cross between a Terry Gilliam movie and a BioShock game; the latter referent becomes substantially more pronounced once the characters arrive at the forward cars and the movie turns into a series of warped environments that have to be crossed entrance-to-exit, ending with the personal chambers of an enigmatic ruler who rejiggers the narrative into a commentary on itself.  

Snowpiercer opens with the third-class passengers preparing for a new uprising. They live in the far back end of the train, in a squalid bricolage of bunks and walkways. It immediately brings to mind the post-apocalyptic portions of 12 Monkeys; not coincidentally, the passengers’ de facto leader (John Hurt) is an old man named Gilliam.

A message from an informant in first class arrives, bearing the name of Namgoong Minsu (the great Song Kang-ho), a security system designer who has been imprisoned in the rear section for undisclosed reasons. Presumably, Minsu will help the rear dwellers get into first class and take over the “Sacred Engine,” the train’s semi-mythic power source. Breaking him out means mounting a full-scale revolt. The task falls on Gilliam’s protégé, Curtis (Chris Evans, effectively subverting his Captain American persona), and his over-eager sidekick, Edgar (Jamie Bell). 

Snowpiercer’s script—by Bong and Kelly Masterson (Before The Devil Knows Youre Dead) and loosely adapted from a French graphic novel—is structured around the layout of the train, with each successive car introducing another piece of the story and another aspect of its fictive reality. It makes for a fluid, engrossing narrative. The luxurious forward section remains unseen until the 63-minute mark, the exact midpoint of the movie. Details and gestures fill out the train’s history: the symbolic punishments exacted by Mason (Tilda Swinton, wearing church-lady glasses and donkey teeth), the tail section’s overseer; the way in which Gilliam emphasizes the red paper used for the smuggled message; how Tanya (Octavia Spencer) flares her nostrils when Minsu lights up a cigarette, hoping to catch some of his secondhand smoke.

Though shocking violence and black humor run through the length of the movie, what comes through most strongly is its pessimistic political conscience; were the movie less earnest, it might seem Verhoeven-esque. Like Bong’s previous films (Memories Of MurderThe HostMother), Snowpiercer builds to an ending that isn’t conventionally satisfying, but displays a too-rare sense of integrity.

The train—which travels endlessly on a loop of track—is a double metaphor, representing both a real-world social structure and the narrative itself. The movie is blunt about this; at one point, a character refers to the Curtis-led uprising as “a blockbuster production with a devilishly unpredictable plot.” Any revolution that happens aboard is a byproduct of the train’s enclosed system, and changing the direction of political power only helps to preserve its existing layout. The only solution involves disrupting the momentum and focus of the narrative. That’s bound to peeve some viewers, but that’s the point; Snowpiercer’s self-destructive “no gods, no masters” politics aren’t meant to be agreeable—they’re meant to upend the movie itself. Whether they succeed is a matter of debate.

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