Seventeen years ago, in an effort to combat climate change, the human race accidentally froze the Earth, and the last vestige of civilization boarded an enormous train to survive while circling the world. The poor masses live in steerage while the privileged few live in ﬁrst class. They worship Wilfred, a Wizard of Oz-like figure who predicted the ecological disaster and invented the train’s perpetual motion engine.
On the train, everyone has their place—until a group of
revolutionaries decide to violently make their way towards the front.
It’s a simple concept, and an ingenious one, certainly one of the
strangest spins on the post-apocalyptic genre ever imagined.
Our protagonist is Curtis (Chris Evans), who is tired of being fed a
gelatinous black substance while living in dehumanizing squalor.
His mentor, the person he looks up to, is Gilliam, an old man
missing one too many limbs. Together, they spearhead a revolt.
Make no mistake—their uprising is bloody. When the rebels and
Wilfred’s soldiers start battling each other with axes it’s reminiscent
of the nightclub scene in Kill Bill, but without any winking at the audience. In fact, there’s a lot in this movie that might distress the squeamish. An unrecognizable Tilda Swinton, stealing the show as Wilfred’s prime minister, subjects an unruly passenger to an inventive and horrific form of torture that Torquemada might have devised, had he lived in a train that traversed a frozen Earth.
As the rebels cut their bloody swath though the train, each carriage has its own personality. For example, there’s a greenhouse carriage, an aquarium carriage, a carriage with a swanky restaurant, and a carriage containing what seems to be an endless rave. And while this adds visual interest to a film that’s claustrophobic and could have grown monotonous, there comes a point where the train’s layout ceases to be logical, causing Snowpiercer to evolve into an out-and-out surrealist work. You really start to feel it when the rebels enter the school carriage, where kids are indoctrinated into the Wilfred religion. It’s an over-the-top absurdist scene, and very, very funny.
Snowpiercer is Bong Joon-ho’s English-language directorial debut, and although the film is only two hours long he had to fight the Weinstein Company to prevent it from being cut by twenty minutes in the US. But to be fair, I don’t think this film would have ever found a significant audience in America, even with a wider release.
People are comparing Snowpiercer to Brazil, and yes, Joon-ho is clearly evoking the great Terry Gilliam, especially as the film progresses and grows ever more surreal and bizarre. It’s not by chance that a character is named Gilliam. Sadly, Joon-ho also engages in one of Terry Gilliam’s frequent vices: he orchestrates a very chaotic finale. Also, the film might have benefited from some judicious cuts, as the forward momentum is lost from time to time, and the entire movie hinges on forward momentum. But before you accuse me of siding with the Weinsteins, let it be known that my cuts would not have added up to anything close to twenty minutes.
Unlike a lot of hyped movies, Snowpiercer is almost all it’s cracked-up to be, but I get the feeling I won’t be revisiting it often. Everything is on the surface, with nothing to discover underneath. A film this smart and unhinged promises more, simply by virtue of its originality and ambition. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it. Go, go, go! It might be a bleak and depressing vision, but in the midst of a summer season like this one, it made me want to cheer.