Directed by: Bong Joon-Ho
Written by: Bong Joon-Ho and Kelly Masterson (screenplay), Jacques Lob, Jean-Marc Rochette and Benjamin Legrand (graphic novel)
Starring: Chris Evans, Song Kang-Ho, Octavia Spencer and Tilda Swinton
In Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-Ho and his production crew do something that is incredibly important in sci-fi films: they’ve mapped out a vision of their world down to every minute detail. This is where, for the most part, other recent films that attempt to show the horrors of tomorrow go wrong. Divergent and The Hunger Games films are competently made and their action sequences are sometimes thrillingly executed, but their generic, uninspired dystopias are almost interchangeable when arrows and bullets aren’t flying.
Snowpiercer is by no means a perfect film, but it is a transporting one. Its success is in its environment, in its imagining of a train that appears to be all that is left of civilization after an attempt to thwart global warming ended up freezing Earth and killing off nearly everything. Here a person’s value in society is, for the most part, measured by how close they are to the engine. (Spoilers ahead) Someone at the tail of the train can have their arm frozen off for protesting when their child is dragged away for work, while those in the front eat sushi and have access to a train car that is a huge night club.
Joon-Ho makes the smart if obvious storytelling choice here, gradually revealing the decadence of the upper class as a group of revolters makes their way from the filthy tail of the train toward the engine. As the ringleader of that rebellion, Chris Evans utilizes the same natural charisma he exudes in the Captain America franchise to create an angrier, much more tortured soul. Despite its fantastic ensemble and unrelenting setting, the script still doles out its ideology and information on the train’s class system like a political science 101 lecture. It spells out things about the world that were conveyed well enough by the natural progression of the plot.
Much of that explaining is done by Tilda Swinton, whose performance as Mason is such a lively, grotesque creation that it elevates the material. As a mouthpiece for the all-powerful conductor, she spouts snobby rhetoric with hair that seems inspired by Carrie Fisher’s one-woman show mockery of Princess Leia. There’s a very eerie scene where Mason, as a hostage, escorts the people from the tail of the train through a brightly colored classroom full of loud kids. Of course, the class is meant as indoctrination, with a pregnant teacher (an excellent if brief Alison Pill) even leading the sprites in a song dedicated to Wilford, the conductor.
Ed Harris is much less successful than the rest of the cast in his performance as the conductor, which almost borders on self-parody. His scene with Curtis reminded me of the scene between Neo and the architect in the second Matrix film: a clumsy, unnecessary conversation that seems to talk in circles without adding anything to the movie.
Snowpiercer largely surpasses its script’s own stubborn heavy-handedness because it’s filmed and acted with such a fierceness and confidence of vision that I often felt like I was on board. Each section of the train provides a new opportunity for a harrowingly choreographed fight, the most intense of which involves the revolters and train guards duking it out with axes in the near dark as the train goes through a long tunnel. The camera doesn’t revel in showing wounds or heavy bloodshed, instead hovering over Curtis and co.’s faces as they seethe with anger. There are flurries of violent motion and brilliantly utilized night vision point of view shots, but their rage and despair is always front and center.