In an attempt to combat climate change and bring down global temperatures in mid-2014 mankind unwittingly destroyed all they sought to protect and caused the extinction of nearly all life on Earth. Seventeen years later the old world is a fading memory and all that remains of humanity is bound together in a strict class system on a single world-spanning train known as the Snowpiercer. Based on the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Snowpiercer marks the English-language debut of South Korean director Bong Joon-ho – and what a thrilling, emotional ride it is.
In the tail section of the train life is simply a miserable existence. People are crammed together with no privacy in squalor, and essentially held captive by armed guards that prevent access to the other sections of the train and who only venture into the tail section proper when distributing the strictly rationed food – tasteless jelly-like protein cubes. The hopelessness of their existence is highlighted by the complete lack of colour on display in the tail section, with the only light coming from a few flickering overhead lights. Camera shots are all up close and very personal to emphasise the claustrophobic nature of their living conditions. All the survivors are filthy, dressed in clothing obviously much-repaired – in stark contrast to the neat, clean and well-equipped guards overseeing them. With nothing to occupy their time productively, no hope to improve their circumstances, and constantly reminded of their insignificance are the seeds of resentment sown.
Curtis (Chris Evans), along with his right hand Edgar (Jamie Bell) and mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) and encouraged by brief messages from an agitator in the front section, is planning to break free from the tail section and head to the front of the train in order to confront its builder Wilford (Ed Harris) to demand an improvement in the lot of the tail enders. However, he’s clearly reluctant to accept the leadership mantle of a “rebellion” while still determined to force change on the system they find themselves living under. In a role where it would easily be possible to become a caricature, Evans comes across as very earnest and determined, but with hints that he’s not really motivated so much by justice as he is by something far more personal.
Edgar and Gilliam are contradictory yet complimentary influences on Curtis. Edgar as a train baby – those born on the train and have never experienced anything outside of it – is rash and impulsive, while also clearly holding Curtis in high esteem. He’s also one of the few characters used to inject some mild humour to proceedings early on, as the movie mostly has a very serious tone to avoid undercutting its themes with misplaced comedic relief. John Hurt inhabits the world-weary, wise-mentor role as Gilliam that we’ve come to expect from him with aplomb and acts as an encouraging yet cautionary influence.
Resentment is sparked when a front section woman who, in a stark contrast to the tail enders with her bright yellow coat and (again) the simple fact that she’s clean, arrives to perform an inspection on the children and appropriates two of them in short order with no explanation. Resistance is quickly suppressed and a brutal example is made of one of the protestors by Wilford’s second-in-command Mason (an unrecognisable, scene-stealing Tilda Swinton), who delivers a scathing speech on knowing your place in society, maintaining order and the price of disobedience; while praising the “sacred engine” and Wilford with religious fervour and raising them to godlike status. Her utter contempt towards those over whom she’s been given complete authority and regards as lesser creatures is palpable. When circumstances are reversed further down the line she’s reduced to a sniveling wretch so at odds with her previous arrogance it emphasises her petty nature and those of people like her when they have the tools of their authority stripped from them.
At the next food distribution the revolution begins and the tail-enders escape theircarriages and move forward to the prison section, where Curtis’ secret ally had informed him that a security expert, Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song), who’d designed the trains access doors was being held. Freeing Nam and his daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko), both Kronole addicts (a flammable hallucinogenic drug manufactured from industrial waste), Curtis proceeds with the rest of his plan. Unfortunately this is also where the plan essentially ends, because while the escape wasmeticulously planned up to this point from here the plan is simply to use Nam to open the doors until they reach the front. As they have no knowledge of the rest of the train, what they experience on their journey to the front shocks Curtis and the tail enders to their core.
Their journey to the front of the train is one filled with revelations and contradictions. The decadence of the front section and their extravagant existence is wholly different from the misery and hopelessness of the tail section. For the “first class” passengers the apocalypse hasn’t changed their lives, only their location. It forces the tail enders, especially Curtis as the focal point of the story, to confront their own preconceptions of what the train actually is and how it really operates and to realise how change can’t come about without painful sacrifices. Evans delivers a very strong performance that demonstrates Curtis’ emotional journey. His changing emotions from determination, to shock and disbelief, to a deep simmering rage, to despair are portrayed with great subtlety. When we finally learn more about Curtis’ motivations it comes across more about guilt and self-loathing over what he did and witnessed during the initial chaos on the train and the destruction of his childhood innocence – his journey to the front of the train is for redemption and to demand an answer from Wilford – Why? Not content to just deliver a sucker punch to the gut, it follows that up with a swift uppercut in an intensely moving monologue.
The final confrontation between Curtis and Wilford is again one of stark contrasts. During the course of the movie Curtis is portrayed with clear humanity, Wilford is practically inhuman in his pursuit of order and balance on the train, referring to people as “individual units” and treating them like components in his beloved machine which he holds supreme to all else. Ed Harris delivers his explanation of how life functions on the train in a way that is flawless in its logic, yet completely devoid of any emotion – he knows exactly how the tail enders are suffering, he just doesn’t care. Given what we witness during the course of the movie however one if forced to wonder is Wilford really the saviour of humanity, or whether he’s simply an eccentric old world billionaire with a penchant for trains who was fortunate to be able to survive, and subsequently driven further into madness by a crushing sense of responsibility.
It’s also chilling at how understandable it is and makes one wonder what they would have done if they were in his position. This is what Curtis experiences to when Wilford tries to subvert Curtis in a(n admittedly clichéd) attempt to be his successor, and with his whole world view crashes down around him Curtis is forced to choose between maintain the status quo and the horror it entails, or risk everything by possibly destroying what’s left of humanity.
At its core Snowpiercer is a story about humanity that both rails against and perpetuates authoritarian power structures which uphold strict class systems, celebrating and even deifying those who’re fortunate enough to be in the upper classes as simply being better while dehumanising those deemed to be of lesser value. It demonstrates how oppression does not maintain order indefinitely, and that violence can result in order to force change – with catastrophic consequences for all. It’s not subtle and therein lays its strength – it’s a powerful journey to the front of the train, and one well worth taking.
Snowpiercer released Friday, 17 October 2014.
Last Updated: October 20, 2014