As things happen, Earth has been frozen. Due to the planet’s drastic warming, the world opts for an experimental procedure that will cool down temperatures. It worked too well. All life is extinguished, with the exception of those upon the Snowpiercer, a massive train built to circumvent the globe over the course of a year. Hundreds, maybe thousands still live on the Snowpiercer, but as in the time before the train, a class structure still rules.
Bong Joon-ho’s English-language debut Snowpiercer is an adaptation of the French graphic novel Le Transperceniege. The South Korean director has been one of the most exciting filmmakers since the dawn of this century, with a trio of fantastic films (Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother) leading up to this project. Elements of each of those pictures make their mark in Snowpiercer. Memeories’ bleakness. The Host’s absurdities amongst an epic tale. Mother’s penchant for layering on the twists. Once more Joon-ho has managed to craft a unique, smart film which begins to put him in the conversation of which director’s are currently working at the top of his/her game.
The movie follows the people in the tail section of the train, a collection of poor, struggling individuals who reside in cramped spaces and live off a Jell-o-esque protein bar that is dished out daily. Amongst the group is Curtis (Chris Evans), a strong looking man with plans for revolt; plans that aren’t quite ready to be used. He is joined by the eager Edgar (Jamie Bell), whom looks up to him, and Gilliam (John Hurt), whom Curtis himself looks up to. Gilliam has been involved in revolts before and shows the scars to prove it. Those in the tail aren’t sure how good life is towards the front of the train. They are sure it’s better though.
Occasionally, the tail is visited by Mason (Tilda Swinton), a representative of the train’s captain. Mason condescends, yammers on and informs them that everyone in society has their place, stating that these folks should be grateful to have any food or shelter when the outside world is frozen, barren death. Joon-ho lets Swinton go wonderfully big with the part; dentures protruding from her mouth as she smiles through her villainy.
Eventually, Curtis and his crew put their plan into action. They release an imprisoned engineer (Joon-ho veteran Song Kang-ho) who was put away for his fondness for a drug made of chemical waste. The engineer has knowledge on how to open each gate our protagonists must bust through. Some doors have a few soldiers behind them, other doors have a hundred armed to the teeth. Many of the doors have something else altogether and a great joy of Snowpiercer is the way Joon-ho keeps the audience guessing; there are horrors and moments of beauty.
Amidst one brutal encounter, a sense of temporary peace occurs as both sides realize another year has passed since the world outside ended. The recognition is profound to them, even as each person knows what is about to reoccur. One of the movie’s most thrilling moments takes place as Curtis makes it to a classroom steeped in upbeat propaganda, complete with salutes, verbage and the like one would see in North Korea. Joon-ho’s knack for misdirection and action is on full display, layered over archetypal characters with enough shading to make their conflicts highly engaging.