Snowpiercer (2013) Film Review, a movie directed by Bong Joon Ho, starring Alison Pill, Ed Harris, Chris Evans, Ah-sung Ko, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Luke Pasqualino, Kenny Doughty, Kang-ho Song, Steve Park, Adnan Haskovic, Clark Middleton, Vlad Ivanov, Kojo Asiedu, and Ewen Bremner.
Note: There are spoilers in this review. If you wish to go into the film fresh, avoid reading this review.
Director Bong Joon Ho takes the best and the worst of the world and places those elements within the confines of a mobile laboratory, a refuge rattling around a dead world. There is a strict class system in place, a multi-functioning system that serves more purposes than a cursory evaluation can detect.
Like James Cameron‘s Avatar, Snowpierecer was a story of the strong taking from the weak and the weak finding an unlikely leader. No one was a more unlikely leader for the downtrodden than Curtis (Chris Evans). The fact that other people around him knew about his past and looked to him for leadership, regardless of his past, spoke a great deal about the change that he had undergone during his seventeen years on Wilford’s miracle train.
Snowpiercer was set in a dirty future, at least initially, very much like the one present in Ridley Scott‘s Blade Runner. The people that existed in it were accustomed to its ghetto conditions and having their lives harshly regimented by those that benefited from their squalor. The lack of sanitation was to be expected in a permanently closed environment like the train but when the viewer saw its other pristine sections, they realized that there was no real need for it.
Like with The Host, director Bong Joon Ho never lost sight of the human heart during the fantastic with Snowpiercer. During the situational ebs and flows of the film, the humanity of certain characters was brought out. This happened the most between Curtis (Chris Evans) and Gilliam (John Hurt) and the familial interactions between Namgoong Minsu (Kang-ho Song) and Yona (Ah-sung Ko). The relationship between Curtis and Gilliam was the more narratively fruitful of the two relationships (Namgoong Minsu / Yona’s was functional, light-hearted, and added humor to the film) and had a direct impact on Curtis during the third act of the film. Gilliam told Curtis truths that he did not want to hear or admit to himself. There were some truths even Gilliam could not utter, the biggest one sparked the statement: “Don’t let him speak. Cut his tongue out of his month” or something to that effect regarding Curtis’ potential meeting with the train’s creator.
The relationship between the two classically silent bad guys was intriguing, especially when the younger of the two, aptly named Franco The Younger (Adnan Haskovic), laid his head on the shoulder of the older gentleman, Franco Elder. I thought this situation was sexual like King Russell Edgington and Talbot from True Blood, thus explaining the motivation behind Franco Elder’s rampage throughout the second half of Snowpiercer. A quick IMDb investigation revealed the truth, something the viewer would never have guessed if it weren’t for their monikers.
The train’s circling, turning scene in Snowpiercer was one of the highlight action scenes in the film, not only for its visuals (old world wreckage outside, new world opulence inside) but for the tension that it created, and for what was driving the protagonist and antagonist. The hero, Curtis, was there for the salvation of his people while the antagonist, Franco Elder, was driven by grief and the need for revenge. The camera work and how the scene was cut made the scene even better as did the realization by the two characters that their gun engagement was futile i.e. the train’s glass was too thick.
The sauna car scene in Snowpiercer was probably the best action scene in the film. So many unexpected things happened during it. Grief and anger are powerful motivators and Franco Elder (Vlad Ivanov)’s reasoning had been corrupted by them, making him do things he would not normally do (I assume) to an increasing degree. His mental state added to the cacophony of what transpired. Grey (Luke Pasqualino)’s last minute save was fantastic as was Namgoong Minsu stopping Yona from delivering a death blow (how was he able to hold that crowbar in place with one hand and stop her with his other hand coterminous?). The sauna car scene was catastrophic but that was one of the elements that made it a great scene. Everything was confided to that small, narrow space, including the characters’ perspective of it. The scene’s tragic resolution fortified Curtis’ mission and motivated some of his future actions.
The school car scene’s initial appearance was very much like: the bright, clean school scene at the beginning of Joss Whedon‘s Serenity, the school room scenes in Kinji Fukasaku‘s Battle Royale, scenes from George Lucas‘ Star Wars prequels, and aspects of I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK. It was creepy, Hitler-youthy, resplendent, fun, educational (thanks to the video), and even hopeful e.g. the presence of all those children and the pregnancy. Snowpiercer‘s school car scene was a tone shift but one kept neatly within the boundaries of the film. The scene conducted a great trick on the protagonists of the film and on the viewer as well. The sugar-pop gleam lulled the viewer and characters alike. The ‘surprise’ must have been planned in advance or communicated quickly before Curtis and company arrived. However it was put together, it was out of left field and highly entertaining.
The meaning of the fish blood moment before the axe battle in Snowpiercer was difficult to discern. It was never explained (nor should the film have stopped to do so). Perhaps it was a declaration, like the dead rabbit in Martin Scorcese‘s Gangs of New York.
The New Year’s day celebration in the party section of the train was ridiculous and very telling. Imagine how many wars have been fought during holiday seasons. During those times, some civilian populations were oblivious to the carnage that had happened or that was happening. The New Year’s day celebration in Snowpiercer was a representation of that real world, common occurrence.
The class system on the train in Snowpiercer was the best aspect of the film (the second being its creative action sequences, and the third being the individual train sections and what they represented). This part of the film made it more than just a drama or an action movie. The class system made Snowpiercer a study in human nature. The train was a metaphoric laboratory, a melting pot, a microcosm of the world. It placed the haves and the have-nots, the wealthy and the poor, right next to each other. The cultivated disparity between them caused friction and civil unrest. It placed the viewer inside civil disobedience so that they could see the nucleus of the oppressed’s antagonism. With the twenty-hour a day, news hunger, instant gratification society that we have become (always seeing protests and riots in foreign countries and within our own), this glimpse was fascinating, as eye-opening as reading Alan Moore‘s V for Vendetta.
The brilliance of the society on the train was that though certain aspects seemed chaotic and random, there was actual balance. That balance (the daily count of “units,” part of the train’s subterfugial population control) was maintained everyday and it kept everyone alive (though most were unaware it was happening). Humanity’s growth was strictly controlled to the point of sustainability and system harmony. This depth and level of structural fore-thought regarding Snowpiercer‘s plot layers made it more than just a science fiction film.
The Wilford (Ed Harris) scene brought all of the societal and population control aspects of Snowpiercer together. It was extremely reminiscent of The Architect scene in the Wachowskis’ Matrix Reloaded. Wilford was mentally separated from all the human tragedy that had befallen everyone on his train up till that moment. The truths Wilford spoke to Curtis opened Curtis’ eyes beyond his struggle and broke Curtis’ heart. It was a shattering moment for Curtis, one well-acted by all those involved, especially Chris Evans.
One person’s eyes that needed to be opened to these truths was Namgoong Minsu (Kang-ho Song). His observations about the outside world, in part, may have been accurate but his plan was idiotic. The idea of jumping off the train and going outside was absurd. He brought the flammable narcotic “kronol” with him but no food, water, compass, or map. He had given no thought to finding immediate shelter from the freezing cold outside of the train. Once they jumped off the train, then what? Minsu had no way of knowing where to go. Once he jumped off the train, he and his keenly clairvoyant daughter might have landed in snow twenty feet deep. He had no way of knowing the depth of the snow. He also had no snow shoes. He had no boots designed to be water resistant. Minsu’s secret plan was a lousy plot point, a disservice to the film, and only served to muddle the third act of the movie.
Snowpiercer‘s ending was bleak (think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) and frustrating. No shelter, food, and a lack of mating “units” meant the end of humanity within one or two generations. Wilford knew this. Gilliam knew this. Curtis would have known this. It’s too bad others didn’t see the ultimate truth: the train was life and humanity’s life boat, no matter how deplorable and reprehensible the conditions.
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