The Good: Interesting plot, Great effects (costume design, sets, make-up), Engaging characters
The Bad: Suspension of disbelief issues, I’m not wild about the shaky-cam stuff.
The Basics: In a dark, but not unpleasant-to-watch, story of human rebellion, Snowpiercer chronicles a future freedom fight that pits poor people on a train against their elitist oppressors.
We are finally to a point where the vast majority of the world acknowledges the real and growing dangers presented by global warming in the Earth’s climate, so (arguably) the last thing we need to fuel the remaining naysayers is a film that illustrates catastrophic consequences of trying to fix that problem. And yet, the new film Snowpiercer seeks to do just that. The initial premise is a simple one: after a multinational endeavor to turn back the tide of global warming releases a developed agent, CW-7, into the Earth’s atmosphere, all life on Earth is wiped out when the result is essentially a new ice age. The survivors live on a single train and that allows director Joon-ho Bong and co-writer Kelly Masterson to tell a dark story of futuristic human oppression without all of the complications of the full, real, world in play.
And Snowpiercer uses the set-up to tell a story that is essentially a class warfare allegory. The sense of oppression among the lowest class of survivors on the train has reached a peak and the revolution has come. The result is a film that is realistic in its approach to the violent overthrow of an overbearing regime. Snowpiercer is well-constructed in that it works hard to develop the concept that human survival is not enough; the human spirit must be allowed to flourish and systems of control that diminish some and elevate others are untenable, even among the last dwindling population on the planet. It is worth noting that Snowpiercer is based upon a series of graphic novels that I have not read. As a result, this is a very pure review of the film Snowpiercer, unencumbered by any preconceptions about the graphic novel or how it was adapted to film.
Seventeen years after CW-7 is dispersed through Earth’s upper atmosphere, the human population that survived the attempt to reverse global warming’s effects live on the Rattling Ark, a train that has been moving since the world outside froze. Aboard the train, Curtis resists the totalitarian forces that tote guns and do daily head counts of each compartment. Curtis and Edgar get a message (embedded in a protein block) that there is a security expert, Namgoong Minsu, in the prison car and Curtis believes that if they can get to the front of the train and take the engine, they can run the train. Curtis wants to revolt and install Gilliam as the new leader of the train (and thus, the world), though the very old Gilliam is resistant to the idea. Edgar thinks Curtis would be a good leader, but he is resistant to the idea. So, a plan is hatched that hinges on four gates (quite a distance apart) being opened at the same time for four seconds, which might allow Curtis to break Namgoong out of the prison car.
With luck (and the oppressors not having bullets) on their side, Curtis manages to stage a break-in to the prison car. There, he and his group of malcontents find Namgoong and break him and his daughter Yona out of prison. In exchange for drugs, Namgoong agrees to help Curtis and his group through the gates that separate the train’s cars and soon Curtis is leading a bona fide revolution. But that revolution soon comes at a high cost; traveling into the more wealthy and elite sections of the train, Curtis encounters Minister Mason, the leader of the train’s military, and rich folks who will kill to defend their position, like the teacher in the school train. As Curtis loses friends and allies, he takes drastic measures to reach the engine which might make him into the leader, but not necessarily the one Edgar foresaw him becoming.
First and foremost, Snowpiercer looks completely credible. Those drawn to the Captain America film franchise because of Chris Evans’s clean-cut good looks will be shocked to see just how filthy he can look. Throughout Snowpiercer, Evans (who leads the cast as Curtis) and everyone else is covered in a thin sheen of dirt and sweat. Everything in the movie is dirty and aged, looking stressed and worn (save the firearms carried by the officers aboard the train). That creates an instantly believable atmosphere and the perception that nothing new has been made in seventeen years. It also makes one wonder immediately what exactly the protein blocks are that everyone is consuming. The contrast with the cleanliness and color palate in the forward sections is striking and it makes for a visually interesting movie, even if it is a bit obvious.
The film’s mood is also established right away by the seemingly random question all of the inhabitants of the car Curtis is in are asked. Military thugs with heavy guns ask if anyone in the car knows how to play violin. When one man mentions that he and his wife both play and he is carted off (without his wife) because they “need his hands,” there is an underlying sense of menace to the exchange that helps instantly encapsulate the dark world that Earth aboard the Rattling Ark has become.
Snowpiercer smartly develops as Curtis and his rebels move forward in the train, encountering different social groups in each compartment. The film is like a mini-Gulliver’s Travels in that each train car is like an almost entirely different world. The social commentary abounds and Snowpiercer does with more success and subtlety what Elysium (reviewed here!) tried to do with its thematic bludgeon; it shows all the horror of class division in a world of diminished resources.
The film would be an unfortunate failure were it not for the intriguing characters. Curtis is an intense man who is easy to watch and him asking Edgar early in the film about his earliest memories sets up the film’s late and horrifying revelations. Gilliam is an interesting, if tragic, mentor and Edgar’s part in the story is enough to give reasonable cause to the revolution; he is a young person who wants a better life than the one he is given by those in power. Even Wilford, the leader Curtis must ultimately confront, makes some sense in the context of the one-train world.
Despite the characters being easy to watch, not all of Snowpiercer is enjoyable in its presentation. Many of the fight sequences utilize handheld cameras, so they are shaky and frenetic. Given that the fights themselves are already packed with motion, moving the camera during them just becomes nauseating. Moreover, much of the actual fight to get to the front of the train is a bloodbath and the high cost (in human lives) is difficult to watch. I mark that as a success of Snowpiercer as the viewer actually cares as various people are killed in each confrontation. What could be a truly monstrous revelation about the backstory, which comes very late in the film, is hinted at enough throughout the movie and follows on the heels of explicit violence as to make it seem more obvious than truly troubling.
The acting in Snowpiercer is good. Chris Evans rises to the occasion of being the troubled antihero who rallies the masses to his side even as his character hides a deep, dark secret from his past. Evans plays Curtis without much charisma, which sells the concept of Curtis being relegated to one of the back cars well. Jamie Bell (Edgar), John Hurt (Gilliam), and Octavia Spencer (Tanya) credibly round out the caste of oppressed characters with Bell contributing a wide-eyed sense of optimism that serves his character well. Tilda Swinton plays Minister Mason with an appropriately stern demeanor that does not hint at all at the way she played the villain in The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe (reviewed here!). Unfortunately, at the other end of the spectrum, Alison Pill is underused as the teacher (her clean cheerfulness is used largely to offset her character’s quick and bloody turn) and Ed Harris’s Wilford quickly turns into a mouthpiece for excessive exposition. Kang-ho Song plays Namgoong with enough of an off-balance sense to sell the drug addict and the engineer in him, though his best moments are when he struggles to protect his character’s daughter.
Snowpiercer has some problems with suspension of disbelief – like why does it take seventeen years for a rebellion to truly take hold? How is it that the oppressors do not monitor the aft compartments that well? What possible currency exists after an apocalypse that allows such a rigid class structure to be maintained, much less created?! – but they are not so glaring as to make the film unwatchable or uninteresting. Instead, Snowpiercer is likely to be one of the smarter science fiction pieces to drop during Summer Blockbuster Season this year; it’s a shame its limited release will not give it the exposure of more obvious, vacuous fare, like the latest Transformers sequel.
For other works with Chris Evans, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Thor: The Dark World
Captain America: The First Avenger
Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer
The Perfect Score
Not Another Teen Movie
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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