June 27, 2014


Sci-fi can be a harsh mirror.  It doesn’t just expose the human condition.  It can expose our past and present with a serious warning with regards to our future.  Bong Joon ho‘s Snowpiercer is incisive science fiction that cuts into the historical narratives of revolution by keeping a sharp eye on not only class conflict, but how that conflict manifests itself in insidious ways far beyond the living conditions of the haves and have-nots.  Although Snowpiercer is at times brutally dark and pitiless, it also keeps a thrilling pace inside a rich, interesting world filled with compelling characters.  The movie can be a bit blurry around the edges and shaky with its thematic conclusions, but Snowpiecer is a constant force to be reckoned with.

In an attempt to stop global warming, humanity launched CW-7, an effort to cool the Earth back down to sustainable temperatures.  The project was a catastrophic failure that caused a second ice age, and killed most of humanity.  The last of our species is on a train powered by a perpetual motion engine.  The poor survivors live at the back of the train and under the tyranny of the rich passengers, who reside on the front of the train.  In the year 2031, seventeen years after the failure of CW-7, Curtis (Chris Evans in an amazing performance) rallies the other poor passengers, and stages a revolution to move all the way to the front and take the engine.  However, as he begins to move further along the individual cars, he discovers both the sacrifices required to progress and the revelations that lie ahead.


Before Snowpiercer even really begins, it forms an intriguing central mystery without ever having anyone vocalize it: Why keep the poor passengers alive at all?  They stay huddled in the back and do no work.  The movie then adds another mystery regarding the forceful removal of certain children from the poor, but not explaining why only a few kids are taken and for what purpose.  These two mysteries run the length of the movie, and the payoff is worth the wait, but you have to trust it’s there.  Snowpiercer earns that trust with the breadth of Bong’s vision.

The level of detail running throughout the movie is remarkable.  The structure of the plot and the setting allow Bong to literally and figuratively compartmentalize a new world of class warfare.  Production Designer Ondrej Nekvasil put a stunning level of detail into each car, and Bong fleshes it out by showing how these characters function within their socioeconomic station.  The filmmaker sees the intersection of how geography defines culture and vice-versa.  It also provides a clever assist to the script as certain cars lead to particular scenes, such as the children’s classroom showing indoctrination but also providing exposition.


There is one major compromise Bong has to make in his specific vision, which is to cut out media and entertainment.  Although we see opiates such as the wealthy worshiping the engineer’s designer, Wilford, as well as passengers using the drug “Kronol”, the movie omits the opiate of entertainment, which, in keeping with a view of history, would supplicate the lower classes.  Additionally, a news service would inform the wealthier cars about the coming revolution.  But it makes sense why Bong would leave out entertainment since it’s difficult to critique what you’re providing.

Snowpiercer isn’t a tirade or agitprop.  It’s entertaining, and features some thrilling action scenes that are both grand and intimate.  Bong knows how to keep us on our toes not just with the brutality of the violence, but with how far he’s willing to go in forcing his characters to continue onwards.  He has no hesitation about making us care about characters and then killing them off because this isn’t a revolution in the abstract.  Although Bong has broadly drawn the sides of the poor people are good and the rich people are bad, the revolutionaries have personal lives beyond the revolution.  These aren’t just people looking for a better life.  They’re friends.  They’re family.  And their deaths have meaning.


Sacrifice is a huge theme in Snowpiercer, and Bong never shies away from what people are willing to do in order to disrupt a status quo that imposes cruel living conditions and steals children.  There’s no turning the revolution back, but whom will be left to move forward?  Even Curtis doesn’t want to lead; he wants that responsibility to lie with his mentor, Gilliam (John Hurt).  Curtis is the rare revolutionary: He’s reluctant to lead, he doesn’t spout treatises on the class warfare, and he rallies people through personal relationships rather than demagoguery.  Again, this may not fit perfectly into a believable historical paradigm, but we can suspend our disbelief because the larger conflict connects.

Although I don’t agree with all of Bong’s thematic conclusions, he makes a fairly strong argument, and it’s also an admirable one that’s as unflinching and unforgiving as his movie.  Snowpiercer may wear the guise of a sci-fi action-thriller, but it’s as dark and damning as any straight drama.  The genre trappings, along with the excellent performances, are what stop the film from being a depressing slog.  The tension is always taut as we root for these characters to succeed even though as a present-day audience we’re well aware that the wealthy usually win.


Except Snowpiercer isn’t just a critique of the über-rich.  It’s an indictment of those who choose to neglect the less fortunate and our unwillingness to sacrifice our comfort while others suffer.  I doubt Bong wants us to give up our material possessions and become socialists, but he also wants us to acknowledge the severe dysfunction of our social strata instead of ignorantly coasting along in our cushy compartments.

Snowpiercer is a challenge in a movie landscape where sci-fi action rarely challenges us.  As we’ve seen in films such as Prometheus and Transcendence, sci-fi in modern films usually amounts to Icarus stories.  Bong Joon ho forces us to look deeper and done so with a film that can be harsh, but never hateful.  It’s a cold, grim world, and yet the fire and fury of his characters and their story keep this unique vision burning bright.

Rating: A-


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