It’s no secret that this year’s summer movie season has been rather lackluster, with the box office down nearly 20% from this time last year. Despite this, however, not every release since May has been a stinker. Currently flying under the radar in a limited theatrical release is Snowpiercer, the English-language debut of internationally-acclaimed South Korean auteur Bong Joon-Ho. Visually hypnotic, masterfully directed, and politically provocative, Snowpiercer stands out from the season’s slew of uninspired blockbusters, offering moviegoers one of the most original and thought-provoking post-apocalyptic parables in years.
The film takes place in the year 2031, almost two decades after a chemical called CW-7 was released into the atmosphere by the world’s nations in an attempt to stop global warming. Unfortunately for the entire planet’s population, the stuff worked too well and froze the earth over, killing nearly everyone in the process. Those who did survive were corralled aboard the eponymous Snowpiercer, a train equipped with a perpetual motion engine spanning the globe that was created by eccentric futurist Wilford (Ed Harris).
The train is split into two hierarchical components: the front end of the train, and the tail. The front of the train, luxurious and comfortable, is home to the uber-rich who could afford tickets aboard humanity’s vehicular savior. The tail end, hardly fit to be a cattle car, contains the wretched plebeians who swarmed the platform and clamored aboard as the train was departing, desperate to survive. Life in the tail is hardly a life at all; the passengers suffer in claustrophobic squalor and subsist only on muculent “protein bars” while their children are mysteriously summoned to the front of the train, never to return.
Protagonist Curtis (Chris Evans) belongs to the tail section, along with his elderly mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) and loyal friends Edgar (Jamie Bell) and Tanya (Octavia Spencer). Tensions are ratcheting up between rich and poor, especially with the spittingly oppressive rhetoric of front-end Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), and it’s high time for something to change.
The tail end of the train has seen previous revolutions in the seventeen years the Snowpiercer has been running, but none have succeeded. Prompted by mysterious notes coming from the front of the train, Curtis is convinced that it’s time to give it another go. Later joined by train security expert Minsoo (Song Kang-ho), Curtis and his ragtag band of tail-end passengers fight their way to the front to seize the engine, operating under the mantra “Control the engine, control the world.”
Snowpiercer require some pretty heavy suspension of disbelief — why’s everyone in a train, and not in an underground bunker somewhere? Who’s maintaining the frost-addled train tracks outside? Why the hell does Edgar, naught but a wee baby when he was taken aboard the train, have a British accent when he was raised primarily among American English-speakers? A lot of this stuff makes literally no sense, and there are some gaping holes in the film’s world-building. However, these qualms play second fiddle to the narrative as a whole, and the audience is asked to play along until the flawed logic is overshadowed by the bigger themes in action.
Like Bong Joon-Ho’s previous films, Snowpiercer is incredible in its schizophrenic tone, able to evoke absurdity amidst brutality while juggling equal parts of action and philosophy. Bong ranks among — or even beyond — the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen Brothers in his mastery of mood shifts, injecting a fearlessly scathing brand of political commentary into his quintessential weirdness that makes Snowpiercer a bizarre black sheep amongst the commercially-minded products of the modern Hollywood studio system. It’s a Bong Joon-ho film through and through, scrutinizing the ethical destiny and dysfunction of its characters under a lens as shrewd and unforgiving as the one used in Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host (2006). It also contains the same amount of excruciating care in set design, lighting, and cinematography — aside from some jarringly bad CG of frosted-over exteriors, Snowpiercer is a visual delight, especially when contrasting the horrifying conditions of the train’s tail to the striking beauty of the front.
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Perhaps the most telling component of Bong’s astuteness as a politically-charged storyteller is the way he understands and interprets the term “revolution”. American union leader Eugene V. Debs once stated that “the most heroic word in all languages is revolution“. We here in America are obsessed with revolution, still high with patriotic glee at the notion of our founding fathers rejecting and overthrowing British oppression back in 1775. Hollywood feeds this elation, romanticizing the idea of revolution while churning out formulaic films where good-looking white dudes lead the oppressed to oust their cruel overlords and create a better world for all to harmoniously exist in. But Snowpiercer isn’t James Cameron’s Avatar or Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans. This is a movie where the good-looking white dude isn’t a hero; he’s a proverbial cog in the machine, a guy with loftily heroic ideals who never really thinks past the revolt itself and ends up perpetuating the very system that he’s fighting against. As Jacques Mallet du Pan once wrote, “the Revolution devours its children” — a quote which, in Snowpiercer, is quite literally interpreted.
Historically, with the unique exception of the birth of the United States, revolutions begin with idealism and end in chaos and violence. The abolition of the French monarchy led to Napoleon’s conquering crusades against other European countries, the ousting of the Russian czar led to Leninism and Stalinism, the Iranian Revolution led to Islamic fundamentalism, and the Chinese Revolution led to the bloodshed of millions and a communist state. The list could go on and on, with even more examples from revolutionary action in Latin America and Africa.
Bong’s story of a microcosmic revolution aboard a enclosed train is allegorical of the idea that revolutions consist of old oppressors simply being replaced with new ones; that the only way to fix a broken system is to completely destroy it. Curtis’s plan to take over the Snowpiercer’s engine was well-intentioned, but naive, and he ends up sacrificing the lives of his brothers and sisters in arms in his misguided struggle for power. Minsoo, the real “savior” of the movie, never wanted to seize power for himself; his driving desire was simply to escape the confines of the train with his daughter. Despite Wilford’s propagandist claims that nothing exists outside of the “sacred” and “eternal” Snowpiercer, Minsoo holds onto the belief that life can exist outside of the pre-established confines of the system.
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Despite its lapses in logic, Snowpiercer is a bold piece of sci-fi promulgation; a post-apocalyptic dystopia that avoids the clichéd trappings of the genre to spin into something completely different from Hollywood’s traditionally safe and tidy revolutionary narrative. Functioning as an exciting action film as well as an eviscerating political commentary, Bong Joon-Ho’s latest is completely exhilarating in both its stunning visuals and radical themes.