After an experiment to counteract global warming backfires and unleashes a new ice age, nearly all life on Earth dies. The few surviving humans now live in the Snowpiercer, a massive train that never stops. At the tail section of the train, Curtis (Chris Evans) and Gillium (John Hurt) are formulating a plan to unleash an uprising against the oppressive, upper-class passengers of the front section. In order for Curtis and co. to take control of the train, they must travel Snowpiercer’s entire length and take over the car with the sacred engine. Additionally they must contend with ruthless upper-class passenger Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), the woman tasked with preserving the current order at all cost.
Directed by Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Mother), Snowpiercer is his English language debut film and it is easily one of the most distinctive, thoughtful and thrilling science-fiction films in decades. Taking place entirely within the train, it is remarkable how the setting never stops being interesting. On a technical level, the set design is astounding and from the way the actors so effortlessly interact with their surroundings, the set has a palpable lived-in quality to it. It helps sell this world. Furthermore, as the revolt progresses up the train every new section is different from the rest. We commence in the slums of the tail section but the closer we get to the front section, the more cars start housing upper-class luxuries.
I was both impressed and utterly shocked by the many secrets within the train. Every time our heroes barely survive a new challenge, a million more would come in various shapes. Sometimes the challenges come in the form of armed mobs, sometimes they come from overcoming a dark past, and other times the challenge is the unadulterated, grim and disturbing truth behind this train. The train is in a way a planet, a moving planet that houses all the survivors and as such it is full of history. It is a character in and of itself, and it is by far the most threatening one.
Bong Joon-ho direction is brilliant throughout, but I have to make special note of the action scenes in Snowpiercer. They are the most intense, exhilarating and cheer-inducing actions scenes I have seen in a very, very long time. One of the reasons why I particularly love Korean filmmakers is because the way they shoot action scenes is unlike the way Hollywood does it. Hollywood tends to over-rely on guns and explosions, whereas in Korean films the action is directed towards actual physical contact. In many cases, their action scenes have large crowds of people fighting each other at the same. Bong Joon-ho continues that tradition with Snowpiercer and elevates it to the max. Seeing Curtis and the other revolutionaries fighting mobs of upper-class henchmen with their bare hands not only creates a palpable sense of danger, but it also adds layers of believability to the action. Moreover, the outcome isn’t always what one expects as people, even important characters, do die. It’s refreshing to see a villain force that is actually good at killing heroes, instead of the usual idiocy.
Even though a lot of the power of the film comes from the visuals and the roller-coaster ride that is the story, the characters in the film go along way to get us invested in the proceedings. Snowpiercer is an ensemble piece full of great performances. Jake Bell, Octavia Spencer and John Hurt deliver effective performances filled with humour, wisdom, desperation and intensity. As part of the tail section, these actors are tasked with communicating the despair and harsh realities of being at the very bottom of the food chain. They do so with expertise. Then we have Tilda Swinton, who once again proves why she is one of the best actress ever. Her Minister Mason is despicable and absolutely hilarious her bizarre teeth and quirky mannerisms. Swinton is the one cast member that perfectly captures the dark humour throughout Snowpiercer. This film can get really crude and somber at times, but there is always an underlying twisted humour to it that usually becomes evident when Tilda Swinton or other actors playing upper-class citizens appear.
Lastly there is Chris Evans, the protagonist of the film. I think it is safe to call Chris Evans one of the most underrated actors right now. While most people know him as Captain America, that role doesn't showcase the serious acting chops Chris Evans has. When given rich dramatic material he can elevate things to heights people do not expect. What I love about him is that from his performances you can tell he is a real team player. In the beginning when everyone is alive, Evans serves more as support for the other actors and their performances. Although he is clearly the leader from the start, his character is a mystery for most of the film. Yet he is constantly charismatic and commanding. There is a scene near the end where Evans delivers a monologue that provides a backstory on his character and it is a whirlwind of intense emotions. His backstory reveals the dark realities of living in the tail section, a section deprived of basic human needs, a section that has forced its inhabitants to experience the very worst of humanity. It is an incredible moment that Evans delivers with finesse and power. Good job Chris Evans, with this and Sunshine you have now been part of two of the greatest science fiction films ever made.
Snowpiercer is an incredible piece of science-fiction cinema. Director Bong Joon-ho has assembled a truly distinctive, exhilarating and thought-provoking film. Snowpiercer reveals so many things about who we are as people that I think anyone can look at it and recognize how it portrays our current reality. The world of this train is corrupt, disturbing and filled with a prevailing lack of empathy. In other words, it resembles our world. There is an ugliness to it, an elitism and cynicism in the way the whole train functions that should affect people. The film’s bizarre and specific setting succeeds in putting us in situations where we must examine the nature of humanity. What is it about us that no matter the setting, we thrive on stepping over others? There is a intrinsic complexity beneath the surface of Snowpiercer, which is balanced beautifully and delivered in a highly poignant way.