This film is currently playing in theaters.
Based on the French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige written by Jean-Marc Rochette, Korean director Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer stars Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, and Tilda Swinton in a story about the Earth’s remaining civilization stuck in a perpetually moving train that travels around the globe. Due to a failed global-warming experiment, Earth had gone into an ice age, making the outside world completely uninhabitable. Inside this train, named Snowpiercer, a class system has been installed, with the elites inhabiting the front of the train with guards everywhere while the poor inhabit the tail. Led by Curtis (Evans), with help from security specialist Namgoog Minsu (Song), the tail inhabitants decide to revolt against the upper class by forcing their way into the well-guarded head of the train and confront the train’s ultimate leader, Wilford.
This film’s a doozy. Where to begin? Let me note that I’ve been a fan of South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho’s work for quite a while. I started off with his independent dark comedy Barking Dogs Never Bite, then to his suspense thriller masterpiece Memories of Murder, darkly-humored giant monster flick The Host, his darkly unsettling thriller Mother, and now, Snowpiercer, his first English-language film. I had trepidations going into this film. In general, many overseas directors’ sensibilities do not quite transition well into English films. Thankfully, this one doesn’t appear to be a Hollywood film, which may’ve helped.
First off, let me say this is not a perfect film. However, it’s highly original, with good doses of nutty surrealism, and is unusually thought-provoking. It starts off kind of slow. At times, I wondered where the film was going. I kept encountering more and more interesting elements as the main characters entered each car toward the head, however. By the end of it, my mind was blown. It’s surreal and stylishly off-kilter like Alice in Wonderland, but it is riddled with metaphors and ideas. Bong Joon-Ho’s films have always been consistent—he loves to explore the ironies of society. In his films, I notice, there are often those moments where you are seeing from a third-person’s view of society. In this case, it’s a whole train.
To note, one needs to establish that this film is not meant to be taken literally--the train, in this film, is a metaphor. As the saying goes, “we (the society) are all passengers on the same train.” The train must continuously run and the people are kind of like the cogs in the machine. Each car section represents segments of society and/or class, or one may see them as chronological progression of society in general. It is perhaps best that I don’t say too much at this point other than to say that to enjoy this film, one must view the film as a symbolized fable of sorts.
Chris Evans, shedding his Captain America persona, shows a great range as an actor here. It’s nice to see him play a character less clean-cut and more grimy. Tilda Swinton is particularly memorable as Mason, a spokesperson for Wilford, the totalitarian leader of the train. Her colorful characterization fully helps cement the surreal, satirical tone of this film, counterbalancing the more morose, darker moments of the film. Song Kang-ho is great as always (a constant in Bong Joon-ho’s films), and brings a good amount of humor and drama. There was one other actor I thought was very excellent, but to avoid any spoilers, I’ll leave him at that. Some of the lesser roles by unknowns were not quite as refined compared to the stars, admittedly.
The film’s art style brings out a Steampunk vibe. In terms of style and theme, I’m reminded of the game, Bioshock, which of course, was inspired by dystopian sci-fi stories of this nature—Metropolis comes to mind. And, given that the film is based on a French graphic novel, there are plenty of comic-book like characters and moments. The CG of the outside world is fairly well-done. It’s not realistic, but doesn’t go the full-on, big-budget Marvel style environment route, either. Ultimately, CG is mostly there to move the story forward…like the train.
This film is violent, with plenty of action. There’s plenty of blood, but this being a film about violent societal unrest, it’s not unexpected. This is not what one would call a full-on action film—director Bong Jon-ho is more interested in thoughts, ideas, and ponderings about society. The film appears to ask the question why we as people appear to be going in a perpetual loop in a box we have made, mostly too busy just fighting each other. A society stuck inside a train—among other things, can also be seen as a parallel to the situations in North Korea. That’s what I found so great about this film—it kept me thinking about many things long after it was over. Marvel films, for example, are entertaining, but they don’t really challenge me, mentally. Maybe we need to think “outside the box-car.” All that fluff can make one lose their “train” of thought. Okay, I’ll stop.