By GAETANA CALDWELL-SMITH
“Snowpiercer,” directed by South Korean filmmaker Joon Ho Bong (“The Host,” “Mother”), in his first English-language film, is truly an original, inventive, futuristic work—which transcends all previous apocalyptic films. He gives us a devastating concept of what might happen in the future if the outmoded and anarchistic capitalist system goes on unchecked for much longer. But the film presents a measure of hope—through revolt.
It appears that world government leaders, corporate heads, and the clueless 1% had refused to act to stop toxic emissions. Then, a “quick fix” radically affected the climate, causing the entire Earth, its oceans, and waterways to freeze. Every living thing has apparently died, except for a hundred or so humans who are passengers on a high-speed, perpetual-motion train.
The film opens to reveal that the train has been endlessly circling the frozen globe for 17 years. Third-class passengers—families, including children born on the train who know no other life—have been relegated to the last few cars. They live in squalor, like concentration camp prisoners, and ravenously gobble mass-produced, slimy black “protein bars”—their clothes now shapeless, colorless rags. They are kept in check by fascist-like, heavily armed guards lest they try to make their way to the first-class section.
The head of the guards is Mason (Tilda Swinton), at her merciless best. She lectures the lower classes on “the eternal order” in which the privileged hold sway over “ungrateful scum.” She barks out orders in a saliva-laced, strident voice, wearing the white, militaristic outfit of a high-school marching band tuba player.
Trouble begins when Mason and one of her female flunkies visits the third-class cars, wearing a scarf over their faces to ward off the smell. They’ve come to measure and recruit a young child, Tanya’s boy (the reason is revealed later). Tanya is played by Octavia Spencer in another strong, no-holds-barred role. John Hurt plays Gilliam, the wise-old sage from whom they seek advice.
Hurt’s buddy is Curtis, played by Chris Evans of superhero fame (Captain America, etc). As Robin is to Batman, so Jamie Bell’s Edgar is to Curtis. Gilliam is trusted to intervene for them with Wilford (Ed Harris, in a role not unlike the God-like figure he played in “The Truman Show”). Those in first-class live under his protection.
This is Wilford’s train. Enamored by railways as a toddler, he went on to build and own them, and to construct an empire of trains, eventually inventing the perpetual-motion engine that keeps his Snowpiercer running.
The landscape scenes are stunning—a relief to the claustrophobic interiors. We watch as the ice-encrusted train weaves its way through mountains, over icicle-draped bridges spanning frozen rivers and lakes, past awesome frozen cities, their landmark buildings barely discernible beneath icy carapaces. The passengers’ windows are iced shut so they are denied the gorgeous vision of what is just inches away.
When someone complains, the punishment is a frozen body part that guards sledgehammer into pieces while the victim is left to writhe in agony. When such an incident occurred on top of the kidnapping of Tanya’s boy, they’ve had enough. They must get to the front of the train. Gilliam selects an unwitting Curtis as leader.
They make their way from car to car, fighting the guards with axes and makeshift weapons. To gain access to Wilford’s quarters, Curtis must get the secret code from the Inuit, Namgoong Minsoo (Korean actor Kang Ho Song), who is traveling with his daughter, Yona (Ah sung Ko). He is stoned on something called Kona, which is compounded from chemical waste. (The fact that he and Yona are Inuit and the makeup of the drug are vital elements to the film’s ultimate resolution.) He will give Curtis the code as long as he is supplied with the drug.
Curtis, Yona and the others pass from one car to the next through startling scenes of sunlight streaming through glass domes on lush gardens, greenhouses with fruit-bearing trees, vegetable patches, and domestic animals; one car is a night-club with a rave going on as trendy first classers drink and dance to techno-rock. There’s a sedate club car where patrons sit quietly drinking and reading. They react in revulsion and horror as the masses and guards hack and shoot their way through.
The film is full of surprises: There’s a scene in a typical grade school class in one of the forward cars. The pregnant teacher leads her students in a song about what happens when the engine breaks down. They repeat the chorus in unison, singing: “We all freeze and die,” with appropriate arm waving. She then pulls a gun and starts shooting at Curtis and his followers.
A bank vault-like door finally opens onto Wilford’s luxury car, as he, dressed in a long silk robe, is sautéing a steak while Curtis looks on, hungrily. Wilford babbles on with his evil, airy philosophy about his oligarchic goals and dreams, and reveals a startling clue about his relationship to Gilliam.
David Denby stated in the July 7 & 14 issue of The New Yorker, comparing films like “Elysium” and “Hunger Games,” “Snowpiercer presents a portrait of oligarchical rule and underclass discontent. Fuelled by disgust of the decadent rich and admiration of the outraged poor.” He then asks, “Is revolution being hatched in commercial cinema?”