Set in 2031, the entire world is frozen except for those aboard the Snowpiercer. For 17 years, the world's survivors are on a train hurtling around the globe creating their own economy and class system. Led by Curtis, a group of lower-class citizens living in squalor at the back of the train are determined to get to the front of the train and spread the wealth around. Each section of the train holds new surprises for the group who have to battle their way through. A revolution is underway.
Snowpiercer, if it were to be described as a combination of other films, would be the lovechild of The Matrix and 1984. The film explores equally classism and control of the masses through a science fiction lens, complete with emotionless overlords and impossible technology.
At the time of release this film flew under my radar and I missed it at the cinema. Thankfully though, I feel this movie is one that can be appreciated on the small screen as well as on the big screen. And I will admit going in to this that the main draw for me was Tilda Swinton - the incomparable character actor of whom I have been a great fan since watching Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon in 1999.
The film is based on the French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige written by Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer is an ambitious dystopian sci-fi film that despite a rather absurdist premise works incredibly well thanks to Bong's direction and some great performances of memorable characters. The film is a series of exciting and gritty action scenes and bizarre comedic moments coming together to from a thought-provoking metaphor on class and economic inequality.
Despite having some scenes that border on ridiculous he somehow manages to balance those moments really well. For example, in what might be considered the main action scene of the film, the bloody and violent confrontation begins only to be interrupted as the train approaches the bridge that marks the passing of the New Year. The fighting stops for a few seconds as everyone begins the countdown and admires the view of the outside world from inside the train. They then resume the bloody fighting once the bridge is past.
Bong also makes the most of his actors' abilities in rare moments of quirky comedy and twisted sense of humor. Tilda Swinton (who borders on unrecognizable in this film) and Alison Pill steal the few scenes they are in and are the performances that I remember the most when I think back to the film now. Particularly Swinton who balanced perfectly on the edge of menacingly dogmatic and pitifully manipulative, it is these goofy moments that grant this film a point of difference to every other dystopian action film. Also, I feel that it is important to note that every main character death feels impactful. Even with all of the intense fight scenes, Bong makes a point to recognise the emotional impact of each character death along the way; usually with a close up as they pass from life to death. This technique really adds to the emotional toll on the audience as they press on through the train.
For what is essentially an expansion of the philosophical exercise of "if the world were a village of 100 people" this film is close to a masterpiece and has enjoyed it's relative success as such. However, the end scene in which Chris Evans and Ed Harris face off about what being on the train means, felt hollow; and is a lacklustre ending for what was otherwise a rich and compelling film. I was left not feeling strongly about either side of the argument or indeed the fate of the train.
I look forward to future outings from Bong and can recommend this film to anyone. It is has equal parts exciting action, absurdist humour and philosophical musings about the importance of human life and the control we let people have over it.
Or just watch it for Tilda.