Thirty two years ago Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette created a French graphic novel about the end of the world and the train that kept on running through it. “Across the white immensity of an eternal winter, from one end of the frozen planet to the other, there travels a train that never stops,” the graphic novel began. It was a post apocalyptic story about Earth’s last survivors living on the Snowpiercer, a train whose separate cars created a very literal class divide. The poor lived in squalor and famine in the rear of the train while those at the front lived an easy life of opulence and luxury. The exploration of the Snowpiercer’s different classes and the way it created a sustainable habitat for the passengers inside was framed through two character’s journey to the front of the train in order to meet its president.
Three decades after Le Transperceneige was created, South Korean director Joon-ho Bong directs his first English language film based on the graphic novel. The circumstances depicted in the movie have been altered from the graphic novel’s own but the core of the story’s message remains entirely intact. Snowpiercer has many themes running through its story but its most prevalent and most obvious one is that of class disparities. It’s not an uncommon topic for large blockbuster films to tackle, Elysium and The Wolf of Wall Street come to mind as recent examples. However, Bong’s film is so enjoyably surreal and imaginative that you begin to wonder if the entire thing will fall off the tracks much like the film’s titular speeding train.
Joon-ho Bong’s previous works like Mother and The Host felt a bit haphazard in its approach to drama and comedy. There really isn’t anything else quite like the sequence in The Host where a grieving family devolves into a scene of slapstick, physical comedy. It was odd, funny, but almost nonsensical and certainly a bit distracting. However, Snowpiercer seems to be the film where Bong’s predilection for combining horrific situations with small, quick injections of absurd comedy finally works to elevate the film into something entirely unique and surreal rather than distracting from itself. A large fight scene inside one of the train cars, probably the most violent section of the entire film is stopped midway through as the train passes a bridge which signifies that one year has passed. The combatants stop fighting and the masked goons scream, “Happy New Year!” in unison. Perhaps this works better in Snowpiercer because the film is set in a world entirely its own rather than one we are familiar with.
The opening of the film places the origins of the story in a reality similar to our own, for a time. Global warming is recognized as a threat to the human way of life and in order to counteract the effects of a planet gradually cooking itself, a substance called CW-7 is released into the air in order to bring global temperatures down to more acceptable levels. Unfortunately the substance works too well and the planet is plunged into a new ice age. All life on Earth is ended and the only remaining living souls reside inside the Snowpiercer, a locomotive that runs on the ‘Sacred Engine’ performing a loop around the world that takes one year to complete each time. It’s a fantastical premise and perhaps that is why the surreal characterizations in Bong’s film seem more acceptable and world appropriate than in his previous films. This is not a human society as we know it, this is one created in a world that treats the train’s creator Mr. Wilford as a godlike figure, his ‘Sacred Engine’ something else to worship. Life on the Snowpiercer is undeniably warped and different from our own and the joy of peeling away at this interesting new hierarchy is the film’s greatest strength.
The journey of discovery starts at the back of the train. Chris Evans seemingly intent on assuring people that there’s more to him than Captain America dons a ragged beanie and equally ragged beard as Curtis, the reluctant leader of a new rebellion, one in a long line of failed attempts. With Curtis are his right hand Edgar (Jamie Bell), fellow rebels Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and Andrew (Ewen Bremner) and a very wizardly Gilliam (John Hurt in another comic to film translation). Curtis and the rest of the rear train population are tired of their mistreatment. They’re constantly counted like cattle, their children are periodically taken away without explanation and they subsist exclusively on a diet of black, gelatinous ‘protein’ bars and water recycled from the waste of the upper class passengers.
It’s not long before the rebel’s attempt to take control of the Sacred Engine are put into motion but in order to continue progressing through the train’s locked doors they must recruit the help of Namgoong Minsoo and Yona played by Bong staples Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko, a drug addicted father-daughter pair, the former being the inventor of the doors keeping the rebels away from their goal. As each train door is unlocked and the rebellion moves forwards, a new train car is revealed to the characters and in turn, to the audience. Revelations about the class system, its methods for food and water production and many other things that shed a light on how life can go on inside a perpetually moving train are unveiled in large, chunky doses of exposition. This is not necessarily a bad thing, hearing these characters discover a world they’ve been living in, some since birth, is great fun to watch. Snowpiercer establishes a world you immediately want to know more about and over the course of two hours the film puts everything out there for you.
Performances are fantastic throughout but Tilda Swinton’s character Mason steals every scene she is in. Swinton is just about unrecognizable with her enormous glasses and prosthetic teeth. She is the condescending, unforgiving mouthpiece of Wilford, the train’s creator. She explains the status quo and you sympathize with the rebels and their desire to change it. Mason bounces around from being despicable to pathetic and even occasionally likeable in how despicably pathetic she is. Swinton outshines everyone in the film, one that includes Ed Harris (Wilford) as well as previous co-star John Hurt (Only Lovers Left Alive).
Snowpiercer is a great film of discovery, one that contains a frantic sense of momentum in the rebel’s fight to the front cars and the engine while still having enough restraint to occasionally slow down and give it’s many character actors room to play in the fantastical world that two French graphic novelists created many years ago. Joon-ho Bong’s films seem to be getting progressively better as he finds the right balance in portraying the dark comedy that he is so fond of. Snowpiercer is certainly not devoid of those moments but this time they do not take away or distract from the drama that Bong is equally adept at displaying. Instead he has created a film that feels unique because of his blend of horror and absurd moments of uncomfortable comedy.