Snowpiercer is an astonishingly good movie, one that truly deserves the appellation of “brilliant.” Every frame is a work of art — beautifully photographed, full of detail, wondrously stylish — but it’s also disturbing and gruesome. It will linger. Based on a French graphic novel, Snowpiercer is the first English-language production from South Korean writer/director Joon-ho Bong, whose previous film, Mother, is one of my all-time favorites.
Though it’s been called “science fiction,” Snowpiercer really has less science and more make-believe. Essentially it’s an exquisitely plotted futuristic fantasy thriller, where mysteries and double meanings lurk in every corner and everyone is carrying horrible secrets. With its anachronistic touches — the Dickensian orphan waifs, the Victorian torture clock, the Metropolis engine — it’s like a big bag of eye candy for Steampunk fans.
It’s also a no-holds-barred political allegory — not a warning about capitalism’s income inequality, really, but a brutal look at totalitarian societies (e.g. Kim Jong-un’s North Korea), where revolutions are always acts of futility.
Above all, Snowpiercer is intelligent. And divisive. It challenges all those who would change the status quo: “Then what?”
It’s 2031, only 17 years in the future. An attempt to save the world from global warning went terribly wrong (as I said, not much science), and now the entire planet has been plunged into a new Ice Age. All life on Earth is frozen and dead, except inside the rattling serpent-ark named The Snowpiercer: With its 1,001 carriages, it circumnavigates the globe each year, drawing water from the fallen snow in its high mountain tracks.
Like all international transport, the train has different classes. There are first-class passengers in the front cars, who we don’t see for a while. Mostly we are concerned with the revolution fomenting in the back carriages, bleak dungeon-like chambers with no windows, eerily reminiscent of Holocaust cattle cars. The passengers here are beaten by soldiers and fed gelatinous protein bars. (You’ll find out soon enough what goes into them.) Every now and then a bureaucrat waltzes in with a tape measure and walks out with a child.
A surprising number of the caboose people have missing limbs — lost, we learn, in the early days when cannibalism was the only way to stay alive. Those who had cut off their limbs to save others, a warped Communion table if ever there was one, are considered sages, such as elderly amputee Gilliam (John Hurt), who seems to know a tad too much about Wilford (Ed Harris), the inventor of the train’s perpetual-motion engine. Wilford’s press secretary Mason (Tilda Swinton in all her repulsive, often hilarious glory) excoriates the poor wretches, reminding them that to keep order on the train, they must cling to their pre-ordained positions — they are the eternal “shoes” and they must accept that the first-class people wear “the hats.”
But revolution is afoot, as usual, and the rebels are determined. Curtis, played by Chris Evans (Captain America), and young Edgar (Jamie Bell) plan carefully. After little Timmy (Marcanthonee Reis) is hauled away, his mother (Octavia Spencer) demands to join the rebels.
First they must retrieve the drug-addled engineer (Kang-ho Song), who designed the train’s doors. They roll him out of his sleeping tray in the morgue-like prison and promise him a dose of “Kronol” for every door he opens. He agrees, but only after he pulls out his little sister, Yona (Ah-sung Ko).
The rebels force their bloody way to the front of the train — past the glorious aquarium and the verdant garden cars — all the way to the “sacred engine,” where Wilford The Merciful reveals the terrible truth.
When Snowpiercer is over, you feel almost ecstatic, not because the movie is uplifting — even though there is that one moment, maybe, of hope — but because you’ve just experienced 126 minutes of masterful filmmaking. More than you have in a long time, you’ve been moved by a story onscreen.