By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 23, 2015
When Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer came out in 2013, the science fiction film was widely acclaimed. I hesitated to see it, however, because the premise — a new Ice Age has caused the extinction of all life on Earth but for the passengers and crew of Snowpiercer, a nuclear-powered train that endlessly circles the planet — and the plot — brutal oppression incites a violent revolt — seemed dour and depressing.
I was right, but so were the critics: Snowpiercer is a harrowing, haunting and beautiful movie. Its protagonist is Curtis (Chris Evans, best known for playing Captain America), a man in his mid-30s who has spent half his life aboard the train. Curtis is widely respected among the downtrodden proletariat who are packed into the car at the end of the titular snow-piercing train. The movement is nominally commanded by Gilliam (John Hurt), but everyone except the man himself recognizes Curtis as the rebellion’s true leader.
With the aid of a mysterious mole among the elite classes who inhabit the posh cars at the front of the train, Curtis and Gilliam devise a plan that will help them gain control of the very front of Snowpiercer — specifically, of the engine that powers the train. They begin by foiling the gates that keep the huddled masses (literally) compartmentalized and contained at the rear of the train. This allows them to liberate Namgoong (Song Kang Ho, also known as Kang-ho Song), the technician–cum–drug addict who designed the train’s security system.
Curtis makes a deal with Nam (as I think the character is called by the others in the film): He’ll hand over one ball of kronole — an industrial byproduct that doubles as a narcotic — for each security gate Nam opens. The prisoner makes a counter-offer. His daughter, a fellow addict named Yona (Ko Asung, a.k.a. Ah-sung Ko), will accompany the party, and Curtis will hand over two kronole balls for each opened gate.
Soon the uprising overwhelms the security forces who keep them in check and capture Mason (Tilda Swinton), the creepy functionary who serves as an intermediary between the tail-section passengers and the upper class. As the group advances forward, Curtis and his fellow travelers discover some dismaying truths about life on the train, including what they’ve been fed for the past 17 years and whose agenda they’ve truly been advancing.
Snowpiercer is based on Le Transperceneige, a 1982 French comic book by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette. It’s been adapted for the screen by Bong, a South Korean director who had a hit with his 2006 horror film, The Host, and by Kelly Masterson, who also wrote screenplays for the original crime thrillers Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and Good People and for the TV-movie adaptation of Killing Kennedy.
The premise seems unlikely at best — the new ice age, we’re told, is brought about by an initiative to combat global warming that backfires, resulting in the extinction of all life on Earth. But the cast and crew go about their business with such conviction that the strangeness of the underlying concept is only a minor distraction.
It’s to his credit that Bong does not romanticize the violence in Snowpiercer. Although this is not an extremely graphic film, the use of force is seen causing injury and pain, and a number of characters are killed over the course of the narrative.
But this is not an action film. In fact, by the end, some of the characters are so exhausted that the fighting devolves into a shambling parody of hand-to-hand combat. Snowpiercer is enjoyable not because of the on-screen spectacle — although the film looks great, which hurts not one bit — but because Curtis’s journey is a fascinating one.
By the end, we’ve learned a lot about the strange train that carries humanity’s remnants as well as about the character’s innermost secrets and nature. Bong and Masterson’s script is carefully fashioned; every image and line of dialogue in the first half of the movie is significant in a way that only becomes fully apparent in the latter half.
The movie ends on an ambiguous note, showing two secondary characters. It struck me as being curiously hopeful because of the plentiful circumstances that are stacked against any sort of happy ending.