“We must all of us, on this train of life, remain in our allotted station.”
I still don’t know what to make of this movie. Many have hailed it as the greatest science fiction film released in years. For whatever reason, I just couldn’t talk myself into feeling the same way. This is more of a film that you admire and not one you’ll go back to revisit countless times because you love it. Parts of the story, like the earnest longing to fulfill your destiny without knowing everything that shapes it, are hauntingly real. Components of the movie, like the amazing set decoration and uniquely Asian influenced fight coordination are stellar, but it’s full of empty characters. Just like its frigid and glacial landscape, Snowpiercer lacks warmth and heart.
After little to no introduction, we’re thrust into the lives of grimy men and women endlessly riding in the titular train. A substance called CW7 was released into the environment in 2014 with hopes of being the answer to global warming. The plan backfires, the world freezes over, and it’s believed that all life except for those living on the train has gone extinct. We’re now in 2031. There’s a distinct hierarchy in place on the train. The poor reside in the rear. It’s a dirty and degrading life. They’re given “protein blocks” to eat that almost eludes too much towards the classic 1973 film Soylent Green, but the reveal is still just as jarring of a moment.
Curtis (Chris Evans) is to lead a revolt and get to the front car after failed attempts at the same feat in the past. He’s advised by Gilliam (John Hurt), the old man full of wisdom and respected by those policing the train. Alongside Curtis is the young Edgar (Jamie Bell). He’s the revolt’s second in command. Mason (Tilda Swinton), the definition of creepy and maniacal, comes to quell the storm brewing at the train’s tail. She speaks for Wilford (Ed Harris), the Man Upstairs presence occupying the train’s head. Mason is robotic and conniving. In a brutal moment, she demands a rebel be tortured by sticking his arm out of the train until it is frozen solid and then broken off. Like so many revolutions and the efforts to slow them, drastic actions are forced into the hands of both sides.
Later on in the quest we encounter drug addled prisoners Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song) and his daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko). Minsoo designed the doors of the train and his expertise is vital to make it to the front, while his daughter Yona is an apparent clairvoyant capable of knowing what will happen mere seconds before it occurs. They’re interesting characters, but it’s the point in the movie where I think everything takes a turn for the worse. Maybe the graphic novel the movie is based on is the culprit of the complete lack of character development. Nevertheless, I didn’t find myself really caring if the revolt succeeded or failed. Everything just happens. In a movie that is so atypical of most modern science fiction, I couldn’t help but be disappointed by the endlessly gloomy atmosphere and saturnine characters. It’s too heavy-hearted for its own good.
Despite being frustrated by the movie, the acting is satisfactory on all accounts. Chris Evans gives what I believe to be his best performance to date. John Hurt thrives in the role we’ve seen him play dozens of times, and Ed Harris manages to make the supposed bad guy likable with ease. Song is a longtime collaborator with the director and elevates every scene he’s in. Also, Swinton’s turn as the sniff veneer of evil is undeniable. She completely makes the movie. I’ve always been wary about her work, trying to be over the top artsy and distanced from the audience. That’s what happens here yet it is what’s called for. Her calculated movements and teleprompter speech are cringe worthy. She is the future’s version of Igor.
See this movie if only to be wowed by the intricate and flawless set design. Every train car is different, ranging from classrooms and rave parties to aquariums and greenhouses. The attention to detail on such a moderately budgeted film is something to behold. Director Joon-ho Bong does masterful work here. He’s the genius behind the eerily Oedipus charged Mother, the haunting pursuit of closure Memories of Murder, and this generation’s best monster movie The Host. Those films are pieces of art. In comparison to the rest of his work, I can’t help but feel let down by this. Bong creates an eye-popping film full of nihilistic themes and commentary on social class systems that restrict mobility, or purposefully let it run its course to ensure population control. In the end I found it to be too ephemeral. There’s nothing to latch on to. Snowpiercer, like the train, just goes round and round in your head, never stopping to prove its thesis statement on our current culture that it sets out to make.
“My friend, you suffer from the misplaced optimism of the doomed.”
Rating: 3 out of 5