Movie review: Snowpiercer

August 3, 2020


A Film Directed by Bong Joon-ho

Screenplay by Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson, based on Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette

Cinematographed by Hong Kyung-pyo; edited by Steve M. Choe and Changju Kim

Produced by Tae Sung Jeong, Steven Nam, Wonjo Jeong, Park Chan-wook and Lee Tae-hun

Starring: Chris Evans as Curtis, Song Kang-as Namgoong “Nam” Minsoo, Ed Harris as Mr. Wilford, John Hurt as Gilliam, Tilda Swinton as Mason, Jamie Bell as Edgar and Octavia Spencer as Tanya

Released internationally in July 2014 by Moho Film, Opus Pictures, Union Investment Partners, TMS Comics, TMS Entertainment and Stillking Films. 126 minutes. Rated R

Snowpiercer is a searing satire, a smart action epic and a cautionary tale about the folly of trying to solve crises caused by human technology with ever-greater applications of human technology. The film takes place in the wake of a climate change mitigation plan gone apocalyptically wrong. Seventeen years ago, a coordinated global effort to disperse a cooling substance known as CW-7 into the atmosphere proved too effective, plunging the planet into an extreme Snowball Earth state inhospitable to life. Now, the remaining humans survive aboard a globe-traversing super-train that must remain in perpetual motion lest its inhabitants perish.

The film’s source material is Le Transperceneige, a 1982 French graphic novel created by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, and released by comics publisher Casterman. This book and its sequels differ from the movie in a number of respects. First, their version of CW-7 isn’t a climate technofix but a weapon with the unintended consequence of altering the climate. Also, while both versions of the tale portray the existence of a class system within the train, stretching from the squalor of the tail section to the absurd opulence of the front, the movie capitalizes far more on this class divide in order to tell a revolutionary tale. The biggest commonality between the two entertainments is the unlikeliness of their central concept: a self-sustaining wheeled ark that somehow manages to keep barreling through snow and ice for years without ever derailing. (The movie at least shortens the train from 1,001 cars to 60.)

This is a South Korean production directed and co-written by the excellent, Oscar-winning Bong Joon-ho. Bong is known for working across genres, exploring social themes and employing dark comedy and sudden tone shifts. Though all these qualities are present in Snowpiercer, the humor is used judiciously, making for a mostly serious, intensely acted tale of combat, heroism and discovery. And while this is a mostly English-language picture, about a fifth of its dialogue is in Korean, only some of it subtitled. Obviously, I can’t say how my impression of the movie might have changed had I been able to understand all the lines, but I do know that my inability to do so didn’t appreciably blunt the film’s impact for me.

We spend the first part of the movie in the dreary tail section. There are no windows, so the lighting is stark and meager. People are dressed in the haggard hand-me-downs of those living uptrain, and all their possessions are recycled or repurposed. Their skin is brown with grime. Their food consists of squishy, gelatinous protein blocks. Contact with those from outside the tail is limited to visits from the repressive authorities who rule the train. Men in riot gear regularly come to deliver sustenance, and they sometimes abduct people to be slaves in other parts of the train. Those who get out of line face barbaric punishments, including having their limbs thrust out of portholes to be frozen solid and then shattered with a hammer. The people of the tail are there because they were not paying customers when the train departed; they snuck aboard. Their freeloading status is what others use to rationalize treating them horribly.

The movie is filled with great stars and performances. Chris Evans is perfect as Curtis, the patient, cunning leader of a revolt that’s been brewing within the tail. Given the clean-cut image of Evans as Captain America, it’s a little startling here to see him filthy, bearded and dressed as a vagrant—though Evans sells it. As an aside, he was reportedly so buff from playing the Cap that he had to wear sleeveless shirts and sweaters beneath his jacket to give his arms the gaunt look they needed for this part (this according to costume designer Catherine George, in a Q&A on the blog Hello, Tailor). The always-charismatic Jamie Bell plays Curtis’ friend Edgar, who idolizes the other man and longs to follow him into battle. Edgar is anxious to get their revolution underway, though Curtis keeps urging patience.

Numerous others deserve mention. Tilda Swinton excels as Mason, the public face of the elite and a woman oozing an otherworldly, cartoon-like callousness. Ed Harris plays the train’s owner, Mr. Wilford, a figure both enthralling and far crueler than Mason—he’s Hitler while she’s merely his minion. We learn that Wilford has been rooting for the current revolt and all the others that have come before it as a means of population control. A connoisseur of bloody battle, he loves watching the mayhem and savors the challenge of countering the revolutionaries. Song Kang-ho is good as Namgoong “Nam” Minsoo, a security expert whose ability to open any door on the train is vital to the revolutionaries’ plan to seize control of the Engine. His character is mostly comic relief but has one moving, solemn moment toward the end. There’s also the ever-versatile John Hurt, whose Gilliam serves as Yoda to Curtis and his fellow revolutionaries.

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The plot begins with Curtis, Edgar and company hatching a plan to break Nam out of confinement, for the security expert is currently being preserved in a morgue-like drawer on the train’s prison car. (Keeping prisoners in suspended animation makes sense, given what a premium there is on space and resources on this limited vessel.) The revolutionaries’ first move is an exhilarating, somewhat MacGyverian gambit involving a battering ram made of steel drums, some wonderfully choreographed fist and knife fighting, more than a little logrolling prowess and a correct wager that the guards would have no bullets in their guns.

Nam is said to be addicted to an illicit drug called Kronole (consisting of cue chalk-like chunks of flammable industrial waste), so after reaching and reviving him, the revolutionaries bribe him into cooperation with an offer of one Kronole lump for every door he opens for them. After a row, he agrees and they proceed farther up the train. Along the way, they glimpse the outside world for the first time in years, learn the awful truth of how the tail section’s squishy food is made, battle an army of axe-wielding foes and engage in some pretty awesome shootout action. They also venture through a greenhouse, an aquarium and an abattoir, where they see plants, soil, fish and meat for the first time since boarding the train.

Much of the satire comes from the excesses our protagonists observe as they travel farther into the train’s front section. They come upon a dentist’s office, a tailor’s shop, a salon, a swimming pool and a techno nightclub filled with drugged-out hedonists. To people who had to resort to cannibalism during their first couple of months aboard the train—before the protein blocks started coming—such sights are incomprehensible. And those partaking in these luxuries show an insensitivity to the harsh realities facing those in the train’s rear section that is so extreme as to be comical. (Indeed, it’s here that Bong’s flair for dark comedy has some of its finest moments.) Another fruitful source of satire is a classroom scene in which schoolchildren recite an especially cloying bit of propaganda about Wilford’s beneficence and the indefatigability of His Sacred Engine.

Snowpiercer does have its faults, the first of which is a piece of information delivered in an opening title card that is at odds with later events. We’re told that the temperature dropped so low as to kill all life outside the train, and yet it’s later revealed that at least one region still harbors life. Why are we misled at the story’s outset by a narrative device generally assumed to be a reliable purveyor of backstory? (As with third-person-omniscient narrators in written fiction, title cards’ function is to dish up the context we need to understand what led up to the story’s beginning.) It would be different if one of the movie’s non-omniscient characters provided the incorrect information—either falsely believing it to be true or knowing better and lying about it in furtherance of some agenda—because these characters’ purpose isn’t to supply us with necessary exposition. But as it is we’re left with a puzzling contradiction.

Equally baffling is a scene in which one character finds herself breathing outside air for the first time since boarding the train, yet somehow failing to expel frozen breath vapor as she exhales. No wonder life has survived. Apparently, the temperature is well above freezing and all that snow is merely a prop, albeit one real enough looking to be the work of a movie studio effects department.

This May, TNT premiered a television series adaptation of Snowpiercer that borrows elements of both the movie and the graphic novels in service of an inspired soft reboot. The train has returned to the implausible, yet narratively satisfying, physical scale it originally assumed: It’s a 12-foot-wide, two-story-high, 10-mile-long steel colossus whose 1,001 cars plow through anything in their way. The story seamlessly morphs from a noirish police procedural to a spy thriller to a tale of societal revolution more uplifting at its core than the one depicted in the movie. All 10 episodes of season one are available to stream and a second season is in production. I’m looking forward to it, for despite the unbelievability of its premise, this series is rich in the same mythic resonance that imbues its previous incarnations. Plus, it’s always refreshing to see a mainstream entertainment question the shaky conventional wisdom that our salvation lies in embracing grand, untested technofixes with potentially catastrophic side effects.


Teaser photo credit: By Kabelleger / David Gubler (http://www.bahnbilder.ch). – Own work : http://bahnbilder.ch/picture/7697., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17355492

Frank Kaminski

Frank Kaminski is an ardent reader and reviewer of books related to natural resource depletion, climate change and other issues affecting the fate of industrial civilization. He lives in southwestern Washington state near the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.  

Tags: climate fiction, technofixes