Director: Joon-ho Bong / Screenplay: Joon-ho Bong & Kelly Masterson (based on French graphic novel by Lob / Legrand / Rochette)/ Editing: Steve M. Choe / Changju Kim / DP: Kyung-pyo Hong / Music: Marco Beltrami
Cast: Chris Evans / Kang-ho Song / Ed Harris / John Hurt / Tilda Swinton / Jamie Bell / Octavia Spencer / Ewen Bremner / Ko Asung / Alison Pill
All Human life is here. No, really…
In the beginning? A French graphic novel by Lob / Legrand / Rochette – Le Transperceneige – that appeared in the early 1980s and eventually spawned a trilogy.
Its ‘big idea’? To combat runaway global warming, an international effort develops ‘CW7’: a reactive agent that, when sprayed into the upper atmosphere, is expected to ‘bind’ the CO2 and, in woolly sci-fi tradition, halt or even lower Earth’s rising temperatures.
The result? Well, it obviously works better than expected; after all the movie isn’t called ‘Sandpiercer’… Trouble is, it works too well, triggering a calamitous fall in temperatures and ushering-in a new ice age that, apparently, snuffs-out all life on Earth, not just those pesky humans. All, that is, apart from the refugee-passengers aboard Snowpiercer.
(From this point on, the movie uses different character names to the source, so that’s what I’ll go with).
Built by the eccentric industrialist Mr Wilford, Snowpiercer was conceived before the Big Freeze, as a luxurious, full-service train-hotel (think: Orient Express on-steroids). It’s comprised of several hundred carriages, containing everything from a walk-through sea-aquarium (and adjacent sushi bar) to a mini-hospital including its own operating theatre: ‘full service’, indeed. Wilford’s company also engineered an ambitious route that would link-up – in a continuous chain – a string of countries in the Northern Hemisphere, to make a non-stop circular route, taking one full year to circumnavigate. Wilford’s genius also developed ‘The Engine’; the locomotive’s engine intended to run forever, like one of those mythical perpetual motion devices; handy, given the calamity about to strike.
When it did, Wilford added more carriages to Snowpiercer’s ‘tail section’ and took in a thousand strangers, in an apparent act of generosity. Once underway, the train wouldn’t stop and with nothing but frozen desolation outside, the newcomers had nowhere to go. That was seventeen years ago…
Much has changed aboard Snowpiercer, but the train itself is still running; still rolling.
It’s an amazing concept, if totally impractical in the ‘Real World’. For instance, the line’s steel rails would shatter if bathed in such extreme cold then subjected, once a year, to the weight and vibrations of a thousand-carriage train… But it’s a movie, not a TED presentation, so let’s go with it and just revel in its sheer bonkers-ness for a moment. I mean: can you imagine a European or Hollywood studio ever giving this a green light today? About the only Western film-makers I can think of, capable of pulling-off something like this, are either Luc Besson or Terry Gilliam. Both directors are skilled at visualising ‘high concept’ pictures such as this, but I can’t see any western studio backing them; Besson’s last major sci-fi project (at the time of writing) was the patchy Valerian; a lavish production that creaked into profit thanks only to its international sales.
Step forward: South Korean director Joon-ho Bong (‘JB’), who first came across the source novel in 2004 and was intrigued at both its audacious premise and how one might actually go about staging it – at reasonable cost – for the screen. The solution, as realised on a huge soundstage in the Czech Republic, was to build ‘carriage-sets’ on giant, pivoting gimbals, capable of replicating the lurches and sways of a regular train, with CGI used for the occasional views outside and some of the more ambitious interiors, e.g. that walk-through aquarium.
Snowpiercer entered production as the most expensive Korean-financed picture ever made to that point, yet from the outset, JB and his producers recognised that, for the movie to make a profit, it would need a bevy of Western names on the poster. In-turn, that would require the film to be made in English; despite having a successful filmography in his native Korea, Snowpiercer would mark JB’s first picture in English. Luckily, attracting talent to the project was straightforward, once stars (and their agents) learnt of the movie’s unique premise; here was a chance for actors to do something VERY different, with a Korean director and a mixed Korean / Czech crew: even if the shoot were a disaster, I hear the local beer’s very good… What could go wrong?
Not much apparently, if the results are anything to go by.
The film opens in the Tail Section; a dingy, fetid warren of bunks, nooks & crannies, populated by a rainbow-coalition of huddled masses. The place is windowless; the passengers back here, oblivious to both the world outside as much as the other carriages further forward. We’re watching a wheeled version of Bartertown from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985), or the tanker Exxon Valdez from Waterworld (1995). It’s your standard-issue apocalyptic grime-fest; a place where the ultimate prize is a half-bar of soap. That said, it all looks suitably lived-in and ‘used’. It also reminded me of City of Ember (2008); another post-apocalypse movie I urge you to check out, if you’ve the opportunity.
Amongst their number is Captain America himself: Chris Evans plays Curtis; unrecognisable behind a grizzly beard and carrying himself with a mannered poise that elevates him above the herd; he’s the epitome of the reluctant hero. (Quick confession: Evans is an actor who’s slipped under my radar of-late; watching him in this, makes me think I ought to pay him more attention).
Alongside him, stands Jamie Bell as Edgar; a young man under Curtis’s protection and, in the story’s mythos, someone known as a ‘train baby’: someone born and raised aboard Snowpiercer and who’s only experience and understanding of the world outside, has come to him 2nd-hand. Whilst there’s much I could say about this very notion, I’m prevented by time & space. All I’ll mention is the evident glee Bell brings to the role of Edgar.
The patriarch at the heart of things back here, is Gilliam (named after Terry, appropriately) played with characteristic self-assuredness by the much-missed John Hurt. The trio are planning a raid on a distant carriage, which serves as a ‘Guards Van’; a prison-wagon, run by the very guards we see oppressing them. Word is, that the train’s errant locksmith is held there. If they can free him, he can unpick the electronic door-locks segregating carriages and, ultimately, they can reach the front – ‘The Engine’. As Gilliam states: ‘We control the engine, we control the world. All past revolutions have failed, ‘cos they couldn’t take the engine’. And there we are: a brisk ten minutes in and we now know the direction of JB’s travel.
After a couple of enigmatic interventions from the guards and a mysterious looking young woman, power-dressed in a canary-yellow suit and armed with a tape-measure, we witness the arrival of Tilda Swinton as Mason. A glorious creation from this mercurial actress, Mason is a cross (I think) between Vivienne Westwood and an over-powering Headmistress I once had the displeasure of knowing. Atop this, add seventeen years of unaccountable power within Snowpiercer’s ruling-class of technocrats and you have quite the harridan. Mason really is monstrous, with her broad Lancastrian accent, prominent teeth and wide-lensed spectacles. She’s here, with more guards, to administer punishment to a transgressor from the tail; opening a vent in the carriage’s sidewall and sticking-out the bloke’s arm (‘At this altitude, we’ll only need seven minutes’). While the poor guy suffers rapid necrosis of a major limb, Mason holds-up a shoe, previously thrown against Canary-woman and proceeds to vent forth a twist philosophy revolving around her disgust at what she sees as the lower order’s failure to accept its place aboard the train.
In the casual manner Mason trots-out hackneyed phrases coined for events & situations long-past and now drained of all meaning, her writing is so on-point. The police protecting her might be content with machine-guns & riot shields, but Mason hides behind a wall of empty phrases that are, ultimately, as futile as the guns turn out to be: there are no more bullets! A fact soon established by our heroes who then begin a particularly gnarly – and brief – knife fight, that ends with Mason escaping, but access to the guard’s van secured.
Here they spring the locksmith – a Korean man called Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song) and his daughter Yona (Ko Asung) – from mortuary drawers (!), now converted to compact prison-cells, in which inmates are made docile by a locally-made hallucinogen. Minsoo’s price for helping Curtis et-al? An endless supply of this drug to keep him and Yona going; luckily enough, the tail section has its own, skunky little production line so that’s not a problem…
The first door they break-through – further than they’ve ever been before – leads to a guard’s rest-room and here, finally, is a carriage with windows, through which they can at last glimpse the ruined world. JB delights in washing the carriage with blinding-white light and getting awed reactions from actors such as Bell and Octavia Spencer (Tanya, a woman looking for her abducted son).
A word here, on JB’s choice of camera placement and how he gives the audience visual clues as to the group’s direction of travel through the train. Seldom does his camera ever show his actors moving anywhere but from left-to-right. Plus, he usually composes shots from behind them, as they’re ‘moving forward’. These tricks all reinforce both a sense of direction in the audience and emphasise forward momentum. It’s a clever solution.
Soon enough, in another carriage, Mason reappears behind a veritable army of axe-wielding heavies all wearing balaclavas, though some have pulled their’s over their eyes, leaving only their grinning mouths exposed. The reason is now revealed: Snowpiercer is entering a long tunnel and the lights get turned off: guess which side now produce night-vision goggles? The resulting mêlée is particularly grim, though choreographed well, within the physical constraints of the set.
But just when all is thought lost, the rebels surprise Mason by using ‘the World’s last match’ to light a series of flaming torches carried forward in a relay like a sacred Olympic Flame. The result? The charnel-carriage is both illuminated and the goons blinded, in an unexpected reversal. Edgar loses-out, but Curtis manages to snatch Mason and uses her to take him and a dwindling number of his crew all the way, through a rapid succession of carriages offering glimpses of a privileged life long-denied the tail. There’s everything needed to sustain community: from a school-room, via evidence of animal husbandry, right-through to a restaurant, night-club, etc.
Curtis, Minsoo and Yona are the only ones to reach the doorway leading to The Engine, but it seems a challenge too-far for Minsoo, who instead, begins to squish his hoarded drug stockpile into a ‘brick’, that Yona adheres to a service hatch leading outside. Turns out, the stuff is highly explosive which, we now realise, he knew all along. All it needs, is a makeshift fuse to be inserted and…
Instead, Ms. Yellow-Jacket reappears, shoots Minsoo & Yona, then invites Curtis through to meet Wilford. Intrigued by what he’ll find ‘behind the Wizard’s curtain’, Curtis agrees.
Enter Ed Harris as Wilford. In Harris’ clinical portrayal, Wilford is a man tired, both of ‘occupying my lonely station’ and of engineering the train’s occasional past-rebellions, in-cahoots with Gilliam. Curtis is staggered to learn, that his own mentor was regarded as an equal by Wilford; someone who accepted early-on, that the train would only function as a confined society, having first implemented a hierarchical sense of order; a view echoed by Mason during one of her speeches. This is the first sign, that the world of the train that has formed Curtis’ world for seventeen years, was never all it seemed…
Yet Wilford is not a man above compassion. He acknowledges the sacrifices Curtis has made along the way to get himself into The Engine, so gives the younger man time to reflect. As Curtis kneels in its ornately-engineered heart, he’s a man overwhelmed and not just because he’s finally – finally! – in the presence of someone who’s guiding hand is venerated like some benevolent dictator. Wilford’s genius built Snowpiercer. The Engine. The very line on which it runs, through tunnels, over bridges in a fragile girdle around the top of the world. To Curtis and practically everyone else aboard, Wilford is life itself so it’s little wonder he’s so undone at finally meeting him. Yet, Wilford-the-man has had enough and now offers Curtis his driving seat, which…
Well, which would be fine, if Minsoo’s drug-bomb hadn’t just exploded! The movie’s very end? Let’s just say there IS other life out there. It may not be what you’d prefer to see, after seventeen years in captivity, but it’s life all the same…
I thought Wilford’s dialogue, especially his last speech, as he dispassionately explains how he’s been able to keep The Engine running, with no (mechanical) spare parts, was highly effective. Take this example: ‘The train is the world. We are the humanity. Without you, Curtis, that humanity will cease to exist. You’ve seen what people do without leadership? They devour one another!’ On the face of things, it’s punchy & rhythmic, but it’s what can be read between the lines, that’s most effective. In getting this far forward, Curtis has caused the loss of a substantial chunk of Snowpiercer’s population, so it’s unlikely that things can continue as before in any case. Wilford knows this too, which is probably why he’s abdicating his throne. Moreover, in its structure as a microcosm of human society (i.e. featuring the haves and the have-nots), JB & fellow screenwriter Kelly Masterson have built a world-in-miniature that probably doesn’t deserve to survive, if all it can do, even in the teeth of catastrophe, is revert to base instincts and tear itself apart. Again, Wilford knew this, which is another reason to suspect his motives in-leaving, aren’t so honourable.
I think Curtis knows it, too. He’s got Wilford in one ear, yabbering about how it’s his destiny and, in the other, he hears the advancing mob. He knows he can win nothing better than a dangerously unstable compromise.
As it is, Minsoo’s explosion takes-care of this knotty problem, but while it lasted, I thought Evans & Harris both gave excellent performances as two people coming-to-terms with their intertwined Fates; one, because he’d reached the end of his line, the other, because there’s nowhere left to turn except backwards, to face his own, hideous origin-story. Curtis deserves to live – and die – as much as Wilford, turns-out.
The film’s not without its flaws, however. Despite the odd flourishes of brilliantly concise writing, characters are wafer-thin. Only Tilda Swinton gets into the mood, by later appearing with a few home-made medals on her chest prior to the axe fight; adornments that allude – like her phrasing – to past triumphs that mean nothing to all but a select few; further revealing a popinjay character, above and beyond words on the page. For all that, Snowpiercer is an action film with a large cast and has to convey some big – and complex – ideas, so it’s hardly surprising when such nuances are left behind.
I also want to talk about the ‘First Class’ carriages, glimpsed in little more than a whistle-stop tour. If you’re at all familiar with the equally high-concept videogame series Bioshock, you’ll recognise some of the concepts employed here, namely the idea of an élite society isolated from the world in its own high-tech bubble, yet requiring an army of discreet live-in servants to keep the show on the tracks… Bioshock’s success as a creative statement, was in-part fuelled, I think, by a willingness to take players everywhere, from servant quarters to the living spaces of the élite; something I think JB lost here; aside from the schoolroom and the sushi-bar, we never linger. Whilst it’s obviously a budgetary issue as much as a need to streamline the film’s pacing, I would’ve liked to have seen more use of such sets and interaction with their passengers, if only to flesh-out Snowpiercer’s size as much as its ‘central nervous system’.
I suppose I ought to close by mentioning the controversy surrounding its release. The Weinstein Company originally snapped-up the film’s distribution rights for North America & other key English-speaking territories, but then insisted on the addition of an end monologue to provide closure for its domestic audience, as well as heavily re-editing a twenty-minute sequence (I’m guessing that included the axe fight). JB refused and the film was eventually given a limited release by another distributor but, perhaps thanks to the controversy, the film was never able to get a full-release in ‘the West’ and has remained an undiscovered gem ever since.
Lastly, in thinking about the film some days after watching it, I’ve been thinking about two themes I’d like to share with you, in the hope they might cast light on JB & Masterson’s interpretation of the material.
First, it now seems clear that Snowpiercer itself, is a phallic-substitute. It’s a male energy, pushing through virgin snow, in-thrall to – and under the control of – the patriarchy at its head. It’s little wonder it all has to end in violence, given the spiritual unbalance at its heart. The train is all Yin, no Yang… Am I over-thinking, here?
Well, if I am, consider this: Snowpiercer is an allegory. A cautionary tale about coming face-to-face with your hero and realising your only role in the exchange, is to Let Them Down… The film is paying more than a little homage to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, as adapted by Francis Ford Coppola into Apocalypse Now:
In Coppola’s film, you have a character Willard moving up-stream to face Kurtz, a shadowy figure who runs his own paramilitary society beyond the constraining norms of society or accountability. In short, Kurtz ‘has gone native’. In Snowpiercer, you have Curtis moving ‘up-stream’ through a train, to meet a shadowy figure called Wilford, who runs his own paramilitary society etc, etc… By the time both Willard & Curtis meet Kurtz & Wilford, they’ve become changed by their experiences, to the point where they are incapacitated by a sense of anticlimax; a state of being that only calamitous destruction can overthrow…
It’s the piecing-together of such narrative sinews & cultural references, that elevates projects like Snowpiercer above the herd. It certainly wasn’t the film I expected and these days, one gets to say that all-too infrequently…
Wilford put a thousand people inside a steel box. After a month, we ate the weak.