Snowpiercer was positioned in the 2013 summer market as more intellectual and stylish than competing futuristic and/orblunt-force action thrillers. This comparison is not completely earned, despite the sometimes interesting work of hot director Joon-ho Bong who also did the screenplay adaptation from a 1982 graphic novel, Le Transperceneige. The source material plays right into Bong’s vaunted dedication to careful composition and capacious framing. Though the film is overlong and its palette wearyingly dark, there is a meticulousness (if not always clarity) in the narrative that outstrips the chaotic overload of many films taken from comic books.
A dystopian moral parable, Snowpiercer picks up 17 years after a misbegotten attempt to reverse the final throes of global warming—a chemical was released into the atmosphere and overcorrects: a second ice age has ensued and wiped out all life on the planet. As luck would have it, an eccentric trillionaire named Wilford (Ed Harris) had already completed work on a long and uncannily efficient self-sustaining train. He allows the world’s few hundred survivors to board his ark-like vehicle—which travels the world on an endless loop—so long as they stay in their “preordained places”.
A cruel apartheid is sustained by the authoritarian regime: the decadent one-percenters live in luxury in the front cars, and the poor and dispossessed are crammed into the rear. Thereby hangs the Darwinian/Orwellian allegory about political inequality and wealth disparity; until Curtis, played by Chris Evans (Captain America, The Avengers) decides it’s time to lead a revolt. His comrades in strategy and arms include the ever estimable John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Go Ah-Sung, and Billy Elliot’s Jamie Bell, an interesting, versatile actor who’s overdue for more challenging roles.
The film’s only vitality and wit emanate from Tilda Swinton’s sly performance as Mason, a bureaucratic functionary who shuttles between the mysterious and unseen Wilford, in the inner sanctum of the “sacred engine” at the front of the train, and her periodic speeches to the hoi polloi. Her admonitions to the underlings are the only unadulterated jewels of black comedy admitted to the film’s prevailing gloom. The surety of tone and rhetoric—quite obviously patterned on Margaret Thatcher’s—has a fey hilarity. Her condescension is wedded to her belief in the absolute necessity of everyone being kept in his appropriate and “divinely designated” place; it is a seamless ideology, unwittingly despicable and robustly forthright. In one of these ghoulish homilies she reminds the huddled masses, using one of the unfortunates as a model for the lesson, that, “We are the head. You are the foot. You would not put a shoe on your head, would you? Would you!””
Only near the end of the film do we see any scenes of the life in the forward cars—and it seems a missed opportunity for opening things up, not only for the thematic contrast but for a bit more visual and emotional breath. Snowpiercer is aggressively bleak, the only action that occurs is violent, and the film’s unrelieved dimness begins to work against its apparent aim: rather than steadily accruing sympathy for the horribly treated underclasses, viewers are more likely to become impatient and inured.
Bong’s penchant for storyboarding every frame of his films is nowhere more evident than in the scenes of violent brutality. Along with an assortment of tortures and mistreatments along the way, there are three excruciatingly protracted set-pieces of battle as, car by car, the rebelling back-of-the-trainers make their way forward and engage with their oppressors. The camera leers lustfully as—often in close-up—a highly orchestrated maelstrom of bodies is variously axed, speared, gouged, and otherwise sliced and diced.
That these overlong (sometimes slow-motion) scenes are among the most reverentially staged is indicative of what’s most wrongheaded and disagreeable about Bong’s film. He has some flair for treating timely and provocative themes with serious thought and a rich cinematic sense comprising pictorial vividness with narrative verve and velocity; unfortunately, here both the central metaphor and the filmic scope and storytelling are beaten to a very slow death. We might look forward to Bong taking a good idea, drilling deeper and with more economy, and focusing his talents to more compelling effect. The problem with Snowpiercer is that its apocalyptic take on humanity at its basest is too long, too underdeveloped, and too unrelentingly grim. The film suffers from the very vision it depicts—life bereft of all but its most depraved instinct for survival, with no remaining vestige of animating spirit and even sensation jaded beyond numbness.
– Hadley Hury