dir: Bong Joon-ho
On its surface, Snowpiercer sounds like a pretty dumb idea for a movie: it’s about a train that never stops upon which the last remnants of humanity reside, due to a man-made global ice age.
Thank you for being so dumb. And if I tell you it’s based, despite its Korean director Bong Joon-ho, on a French graphic novel, you’re going to think it’s the dumbest thing since flared pants. Oui oui? Incroyable!
But if I then tell you that it’s one of the weirdest and most enjoyable flicks I’ve seen this year, then you’ll really think I’ve gone stark raving bonkers barking mad plus 1.
Snowpiercer has a strange premise, but it has a plot anyone can appreciate. Aboard this gleaming train, the scum of humanity are relegated to the tail section, where everyone’s dirty and it’s horribly grim. Talk of mutiny, of revolution bubbles up from their darkened bunks. Whispers here and there indicate that something’s gonna happen, and happen soon.
If something didn’t happen, well, we’d just waste two hours watching a bunch of bored, dirty, unshaved people on a train, and I see that every day for free, being one of them.
Curtis (Chris Evans) watches the guards, and watches the systems that keep the scum in their place, and he has a plan to get moving forward. He was not born on the train, having lived at least seventeen years in the world before the disaster, but remembers nothing of before. All he knows is how horrible it is for him and his people where they are.
Plus, they seem to be getting these messages from further up the train, from someone who seems sympathetic to their cause. The trigger event is when some oddly uniformed mucky-mucks from the front come to the tail section in order to take some of their children.
I mean, you just crossed the line there, fuckers. No-one’s going to accept your jack-booted authority if you steal their kids, are they?
Well no, but the authorities are pretty brutally mean, and they have all the guns. They also have novel punishments for these tail enders.
When a father (Ewan Bremner) tries to violently protect his son from the harvesting, they force him towards the wall of the train, force him to kneel down, and then force his arm through a specially constructed aperture out of the train.
For seven minutes. Seven long minutes. Seven minutes within which Minister Mason (the sublime Tilda Swinton, whose wonderful and weird here yet again) subjects the tail enders to a lecture in her thick Yorkshire accent as to their relative statuses in life and on the train. She demonstrates that the foot has a function, and the head has a function. The foot, being the tail enders, represented by a shoe, doesn’t belong on the head. She helpfully places the shoe on the head of the man being punished to illustrate further the absurdity of their presumptuousness.
The nerve of the shmucks. When they pull the poor man’s arm back in, it’s frozen solid as if it had been dipped in liquid nitrogen. Of course that’s not demonstrative enough.
So they have to smash the arm with a giant sledgehammer, an almost comically huge sledgehammer.
It’s very effective in terms of frozen limb smashing, not so much as a deterrent, though. Curtis and his mob are more determined than ever to seek... revenge? Something, definitely.
The way in which all of this happens seems perfectly reasonable. But what starts happening after Curtis and his crew venture out of their ordained place, very violently, I might add, is very much less predictable.
The train isn’t a particularly complex allegory for a society run amuck, with the haves at the front end making the lives of the have-nots utterly horrible, but it’s definitely a decent allegory. There’s no sidestepping that. And that’s great, let’s be grateful for that.
This society, as depicted, is suitably surreal, horrible and, in some strange way, utterly believable. With each new revelation of the horribleness underpinning this train society, after my initial shock or horror, within a few minutes, I’d be saying “Yep, that makes perfect sense, of course these fascist scumbags would do something like that.” More seriously, though, the incredibly harsh elements of the train’s existence, and the likely fate of Curtis and his revolutionaries are presented as necessary and perhaps even understandable.
When they speak of the inventor of the train, the great Wilfred, they speak of someone who is, essentially, their god. He invented the train, it’s his train, so surely anyone who doesn’t like his regime can hop off at the next stop? Oh wait, yeah, if they do that, they’ll get frozen solid, though without anyone singing songs about it in a Disney extravaganza. But what if the price of continuing to survive on his train, even without an alternative, is too much? What then?
Chris Evans used to strike me as a bit of a blockhead in the past, but his solid work in a sci-fi flick called Sunshine (whatever other problems the flick had, he wasn’t one of them) made me think he had some acting chops. His work in the Captains America / Avenger flicks has also been solid. His work as the lead in Snowpiercer is phenomenal, incredibly affecting work. Sure, he spends much of the flick grunting and waging war on the upper classes using hatchets and whatever else comes to hand, but he was already convincing as this character.
Towards the end of the flick they get him to deliver a revelation about his past, about the pasts of several of the characters, and it’s even more gutting than anything else that happens in the flick, because it’s so horrifying. Wisely, they left this stuff at the end, so that we can see how fundamentally he has tried to change as a person, and how important upending the social order is to him, and, most importantly, why.
He has a mentor in the form of Gilliam (John Hurt), who is the real leader of the resistance, who also seems to have lost many of his limbs. I assumed this was punishments at the hands of the authorities, but there is another horrifying and still uplifting explanation as to why he lost one of his arms. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the character is called Gilliam, most likely as a homage to Terry Gilliam. Thing is, though, Snowpiercer, for all its weirdness, is better and more coherent than anything Terry Gilliam has done in decades.
Plus the flick actually got finished, unlike most of Gilliam’s projects. The character Gilliam gives Curtis a moral purpose to his actions, we come to understand, but there is apparently a darker practical side that may be governing his strategies. It’s possible that, as a character alleges towards the end, that it’s all a big scam, but considering the story Curtis tells of how Gilliam convinced Curtis to change his wicked ways, it seems somewhat unlikely.
It especially resonates when the film reaches the point where Curtis has to strike a devil’s bargain, where he has seemingly two choices, and both of them are horrible, but there are no alternatives. Of course, the facts of the train’s continued existence, as patiently explained by the train’s ‘God’ are worse than anything you could have predicted, but they’re also silly, in a way. Not sure they balance each other out, to be honest.
Calling this science fiction is, I guess, necessary, but that doesn’t really give you a good idea of why this flick is so bonkers. There are plenty of moments in the flick which are insane, even when they convey a strong idea. I’m thinking about the surreal scene when a guy dressed up as a black stormtrooper, hatchet in hand, guts a fish in slow motion for no discernable reason other than to show the revolutionaries what awaits them.
And then, in the midst of a brutal battle for survival, Curtis slips on the fish like it’s a banana in an old black & white comedy, even if the moment is deadly serious for the people being deaded, being made deader than dead.
What does it matter. The battle that follows is suitably brutal. Make no mistake, whatever pretensions to allegory or social commentary the flick may have, it’s a brutally violent film, though I didn’t find it too gratuitous, which I know sounds perverse. As much as the story is about Curtis, there’s another character, in a flick chockers already with them, who plays a major part in the story. Namgong Min-su (Song Kang-ho) is some kind of tech whiz imprisoned in a drawer, and the rebels need him in order to circumvent the doors leading into the next carriages.
Song Kang-ho is a great South Korean actor, who’s been in most of Bong Joon-ho’s flicks, including the entertaining monster movie The Host, and the superb (but depressing) Memories of Murder. He’s been in a stack of other Korean flicks that got released in art house cinemas in the West, and is probably the closest we’ll get to a South Korean superstar, because, like we’d know the difference.
He and his daughter are addicts of a strange but very plot convenient ‘drug’ called Kronole that has no visible effects on the users, but also has explosive properties.
I wonder if that will come in handy at any point. Since this was a co-production between several countries, one of those parties being the South Korean government, all of Min-su’s dialogue is delivered in Korean, perhaps by regulatory requirement to ensure funding. The film tries to work around this with a quaint tech solution via these hinky devices that translate the bearer’s words into English or Korean. This doesn’t impact adversely on the flow of the film, and in fact deliver the most crucial piece of information regarding Min-su’s observations of the outside world.
He and his daughter represent the third way: if Minister Mason, with her giant dentures and horrible glasses / Wilfred represent maintaining the status quo, and Curtis / Gilliam represent violent revolution, but possibly inevitably ending up as the new status quo, then Ming-su and Yona (Go Ah-sung) represent… what, exactly?
Hope? Anarchy? Deciding that humanity doesn’t deserve to survive in its present form, or that life outside the train, however brief, is preferable to comfort on the train?
I know that the ending works from an emotional perspective, but I find it hard to reconcile with much of what went on before, and the world as we were shown it to be. It perhaps represents hope, but I don’t really understand how it’s anything other than a momentary reprieve.
But what do I know anyway? Well, one thing I know is that I really enjoyed this flick, really, a lot, a tremendous amount. It’s has its problems, to be sure, but none of them overshadow what is for me one of the better sci-fi flicks of the year.
Chris Evans deserves an Oscar, perhaps Mathew McConaughey’s Oscar, for his performance as Curtis. There, I said it, and no-one and nothing can take that away from me, not even a new ice age.
8 times Snowpiercer shows what would happen to society if Ayn Rand actually had been put in charge of buildings, trains or people, like she and her followers always wished out of 10
“Passengers, this is not a shoe. This is disorder. This is size ten chaos. This. See this? This is death.” – well, some ladies shoes are terribly uncomfortable aren’t they - Snowpiercer