Who would think a movie set entirely on a train could be so bizarre and entertaining? I suppose it helps when it’s directed by Bong Joon-ho, director of some amazing South Korean films like “The Host” and “Memories of Murder”. There’s a striking visual style that comes from his films, and the visceral action of South Korean Cinema is translated to great effect.
The story is an adaptation of the French graphic novel, “Le Transperceneige”, by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, and the premise is fairly simple. In a post-apocalyptic world where the downfall came as a result of global warming, earth has frozen over to become an arctic wasteland. The Ark, for all that’s left of humanity, is crazily in the form of a giant train. A self-sustaining train that will run across tracks that span the globe forever. As far as post-apocalyptic action settings go, this one is especially ludicrous, but that’s also what makes it so interesting.
One of the many aspects of humanity to be carried into the train is the class system, measured by where one dwells. If you live in the tail section, you are the lowest level there is. If you live in the front, you’re among the elite. You get to dance, eat real food, and don’t have to worry about whether gunmen will steal your children for reasons unknown.
The first portion of the movie is spent in the tail, where people are crowded into the cars with their families and belongings, living off of gelatin food bars and plotting their coup. Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) is the reluctant leader of the downtrodden, following the advice of the sage-like amputee, Gilliam (played by John Hurt). Their plan is to rescue an imprisoned security technician (Song Kang-Ho) and have him, along with his clairvoyant daughter (Go Ah-sung), lead their ragtag army all the way to the sacred engine room.
Despite being set entirely on a train, the visuals are impressive and varying. The tail is the grungy, gritty steam punk nightmare while the further on they fight, the more radical and downright bizarre the world (as it is a train) becomes. Every car is completely different from the last, all the way to the very front, where lies the engine, a machine worshiped along with its creator as a sacred religious icon.
There are only so many shots outside the thick walls of the train, so almost everything you see is set within. This is where the sets really stand out here, for each one is a drastic and surprising shift as they move from one car to the next. In one there might be a classroom, in another, a sushi bar. Even seeing a window is something startling, for in the tail there are none to be found. Despite being set in one giant location, there’s nothing monotonous about moving from one space to another.
Bong Joon-ho’s flair for action is in prominent display, pushing desperate characters to extreme action in violent and often creative ways, one example being Curtis and a gunman shooting at each other through windows while the train bends around a mountain. The train, being as long as it is, allows for both of them to fire as though they’re facing each other. To go along with such insane action, you need insane villains (which is something often found in violent South Korean action movies). There’s no shortage of that here, whether it’s the thug who just won’t die, the psychotic and pregnant teacher (Alison Pill), or Tilda Swinton as Mason, an eccentric, cowardly, and over-the-top minister. All of them add to the strange world that is the train.
There’s a theme of control, in this case the control of one’s eco system. Given the confined space and the limited resources, everything aboard the train must be meticulously measured and accounted for, including population and the more obvious being food and water. There are far more aspects of live being guided however, and the reasons behind some of it is so downright crazy that it would be a shame to spoil it.
Bong Joon-ho is an excellent choice for bridging Hollywood and South Korean Cinema together, crafting an accessible and thrilling story without losing any of his unique style. “Snowpiercer” is definitely worth a watch. Check it out; you just might see something new.