A blockbuster production with a devilishly unpredictable plot. This is how, towards the end of the movie, a character describes the events of Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, in a brazen moment of meta commentary. Because of course that description applies to the movie itself. For his first English-language film, South Korean genre-mashing master Bong does indeed go blockbuster-big, with a movie that’s larger in scale than anything he’s done before and a star-studded cast that includes Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, and Bong stalwart Song Kang-ho. At the same time, that one-sentence description can be seen as Bong acknowledging the fears of some of his fans that his idiosyncratic style could be compromised by his working with a bigger budget and additional creative constraints. (See Kim Jee-woon’s Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The Last Stand, a perfectly serviceable and enjoyable movie that nevertheless can’t touch any of his South Korean output.) Of course, by the time that sentence is uttered, those fears have long been proven unfounded. Devilishly unpredictable, as it turns out, is quite the understatement.
Based on an ‘80s French graphic novel (and co-written with Before the Devil Knows Your Dead writer Kelly Masterson), Snowpiercer is set in 2031, aboard a train that houses the last remnants of humanity. The prologue explains that in 2014, several countries dispersed a chemical in the atmosphere in order to try to counteract the effects of global warming, a move that backfired when said chemical proved too effective, leading to a new ice age and to the extinction of all life on earth. (Those familiar with the rest of Bong’s oeuvre will notice the similarities with The Host, which opens with scientists dumping formaldehyde into the Han river, inadvertently creating the movie’s mutant monster.) The only survivors were those lucky enough to board a giant train built by the mysterious Wilford, which now runs around the world without ever stopping. Unfortunately, not all passengers were created equal; those who were able to afford an actual ticket live in the front section of the train, enjoying, we are told, steak dinners and fine music, while stowaways are parked in the tail section, living in abject squalor and at the mercy of Wilford’s brutal police force.
It has now been seventeen years since what was left of humanity boarded the train, though, and revolution is brewing. Previous attempts at revolt have been unsuccessful, but this time the tail-sectioners have a secret weapon, a mysterious informant who sends them messages hidden in the protein rations they’re given to eat every day. The de facto leader of the rebellion is Curtis (Chris Evans), a smart and driven man who seems nevertheless uncomfortable with the responsibilities others want to saddle him with, and who would much rather defer to the tail-sectioners’ spiritual leader, Gilliam (John Hurt). The enemy is the never-seen Wilford and the face of his oppressive regime, buck-toothed Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) and her small army of guards. Once the revolution starts, the plan is for Curtis and his forces to make their way up the train until they reach the engine room, Wilford’s inner sanctum, and to seize control of the engine and, therefore, of the train. It all sounds so simple.
The revolution, though, doesn’t start right away. Bong takes his time in setting up his movie, devoting almost half an hour to showing us how the tail-sectioners live, the violence to which they are subjected daily, the injustice of Wilford’s regime. We meet Curtis’s enthusiastic second-in-command Edgar (Jamie Bell), who doesn’t remember his mother’s face or what steak tastes like, and mama bear Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and her adorable tyke Timmy, who wants nothing more than to be allowed to play with ‘the ball’ (for there appears to be only one in the whole tail section) for an hour. Bong’s in no rush to get to the action and as a result, when the action does finally happen, we are entirely aware of what’s at stake for everyone. The opening stage of the revolution is over almost as fast as it started, but this two-minute action sequence is more tense and thrilling than half the year’s blockbusters put together, because we know what the characters stand to lose if they fail (if not exactly what they stand to gain).
From there Curtis and his ragtag crew of rebels slowly advance towards the engine room, enlisting banished engineer Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) and his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung) to help them open the gates separating each car from the next. The train setting works to Bong’s strengths beautifully: each new car is like a different self-contained world, which lets him showcase his knack for switching from one genre to another effortlessly and seamlessly. Bong makes transitioning from a brutal fight in a dark hallway to a comedy scene set in a brightly-colored classroom (complete with a crazy song-and-pantomime number) seem easy and, above all, logical. Every new car is its own crazy set piece, but the whole somehow makes sense. It’s a style Bong’s perfected over the course of his career (see in particular The Host), but it wouldn’t work half as well if it weren’t for his brilliant cast. Chris Evans sheds the squeaky-clean Captain America persona to provide a most compelling performance as Curtis, the balanced center without which the film’s craziness just wouldn’t work, while also hinting at deeper issues that don’t get hashed out until a couple of scenes late in the film (and Evans sells the hell out of what could have been corny reveals and instead turn out to be quite the emotional one-two punch). Tilda Swinton is barely recognizable as the grotesque Minister Mason, alternately haughty and grovelling, a villain that’s almost too pathetic to hate. And then there’s Song Kang-ho, probably the closest thing we’re ever going to get to a modern Toshiro Mifune, capable of going from broad slapstick to subtle drama and back all within the same scene. Snowpiercer is Bong Joon-ho and Song Kang-ho’s third feature together, after Memories of Murder and The Host, and it’s hard to think of another actor that would be better suited to Bong’s style.
Snowpiercer is also the latest in a series of politically-minded science-fiction movies that includes films like In Time or this year’s Elysium and, of course, the Hunger Games series. The metaphor at the heart of Bong’s film isn’t subtle, nor does it claim to be; “The train is the world,” a character says at one point, “We, the humanity.” However, unlike, say, Elysium, Snowpiercer never sacrifices story or character in service of its metaphor. Here again, the setting works in favor of the movie, providing an endless source of forward momentum (no pun intended), as the rebels advance towards the head of the train. At the same time Bong remains a master of pacing who knows exactly when to slow things down and provide a quiet scene or two that will only make the action to come hit harder. (Chances are, if Harvey Weinstein does get to chop up Snowpiercer like he wants to, those essential quiet scenes will be the first to go.) Violence is something that’s always present in the film’s universe, right below the surface, but Bong knows to build towards it, to have it explode in sudden and, if at all possible, surprising bursts, and that makes it all the more effective.
Because Snowpiercer, as it turns out, is a brutal, brutal movie. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Bong’s work, but it does, perhaps because by now we’ve become so accustomed to science-fiction movies providing large-scale destruction and violence that’s at the same time largely devoid of real stakes and human drama. Not so here. Curtis’s revolution is bloody, and it comes at a great and often horrifying cost. The question of whether it is worth it is actually at the center of the movie; it’s something most of those science-fiction-metaphor movies rarely touch on (although to its credit Catching Fire does, if only briefly), because the revolutions they offer are anything but. Perhaps this is the most impressive thing about Snowpiercer, the boldest thing about it, this deliberate avoidance of easy resolutions. While movies like In Time or Elysium admit that the system is broken, they also offer reassurances that it can be fixed (in Elysium’s case with the laughably literal push of a button). Snowpiercer, on the other hand, argues that perhaps the system is broken beyond repair, that the only way to fix it would be to scrap everything and just start over. It’s a much more unsettling thought, especially since Bong eschews definite answers, but it makes for a much, much more interesting movie. In the end, Snowpiercer once again proves that Bong Joon-ho’s a master. And this is his masterpiece.