Snowpiercer is a 2013 science fiction action film based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette.
This is a film that has been on my radar for years now, but, for some reason or another, I have never gotten around to sitting down and watching it. I consider myself a film enthusiast, but I also consider myself a faulty off-brand model of a film critic. Sometimes the prospect of a critically acclaimed science fiction film is enough to draw my attention then and there, and sometimes, I see the gray-scale color palate and a serious-faced Captain America and I fully commit myself to ignoring a film for nearly a decade. Most of the films I watch these days are watched alongside my wife Beccah, and, usually, she will pick out a Disney animated film or something on the cutesier side of the spectrum (I call that the Vinatici.com spectrum), and I will spend a few undecisive hours rummaging around the streaming services, before finding a slasher film. This time, ironically, she was the one that chose the ‘out there’ film.
The film was directed by Bong Joon-ho and written by Bong and Kelly Masterson. Bong Joon-ho is a name you are likely familiar with, as he directed the fantastic South Korean film Parasite, that swept in and took all the Academy Awards last year, as well as other features like The Host. The film was also produced by Park Chan-wook, whose name I recognized straightaway, as one of my favorite South Korean directors. In spite all the South Korean attachment and despite it being a South Korean-Czech co-production, the feature is Bong’s first English-language film and sees Hollywood star Chris Evans in the starring role. Other names involved include Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Go Ah-sung, John Hurt, and Ed Harris.
Snowpiercer is set in a dystopian world, in which, in order to combat global warming, scientists orchestrated an attempt at climate engineering, resulting in a second Ice Age or a Snowball Earth. As a last resort, the remainder of humanity took refuge on a large train on a track that spanned across the world. Although the train has its setbacks, it has been able to maintain a mostly self-sustaining existence, benefited by careful calculation and premeditation. Evans’ character’s name is Curtis Everrett, a member of the lower-class tail-section of the train.
You see, similar to a medieval fantasy, or, in fact, other dystopian stories, Snowpiercer has a certain, particular ranking system. There’re elite individual who receive the finest food and accommodations, and there’re individuals like Curtis who are perceived as a peasant among the classes. The film is built their treatment and the eventual rebellion that Everrett embarks on, striving to make it to the front of the train and upset or, ahem, derail the status quo.
The film received critical acclaim upon release, and managed to breakthrough and garner mainstream attention. Although the film only made shy of 100 million worldwide on its 40 million dollar budget (one of the most expensive Korean features ever), it developed a healthy following on streaming services and eventually led to a television adaptation that is expecting a second season soon (and already has a third season greenlit).
Early on, it was easy for me to understand and appreciate the amount of acclaim this film has received. The novel concept looks like something we would see made into a young-adult feature in Hollywood (like The Maze Runner), but is treated with a harshness and severity that makes it land squarely in the adult section. The brutality on display is not the bloodiest you will see out of South Korea by a longshot, but it is filled to the brim with the same, … ahem, coldness and mean-spirited, kick to the teeth grit that a lot of South Korean fare is known for.
The concept feels realized, coupling in antagonists like Tilda Swinton’s portrayal as the vile second-in-command drawing ire and hatred every second she is on the screen, as well as the main-antagonist, Wilford, who has been worshipped as a God by many of the passengers, but remains enshrouded in mystery.
This is a film I oftentimes thought to myself, this could have been a trilogy, or a series (which it eventually did become), but I am happy, at least for this instance, that it didn’t. So often with grandiose, epic-scale dystopian features, filmmakers aspire to leave a lot of cards on the table in order to build anticipation for a sequel that may or may not ever come to fruition. For that reason, often, individual features can feel incomplete and/or incremental, and, for that, I am grateful that Snowpiercer feels self-contained and complete in itself.
Snowpiercer offers hard-hitting action and careful, thought out character development, and, more than that, it takes elements we have familiarized ourselves with, and finds a way to make them feel unique and fresh again. It feels bravely realized and ambitious, and despite the odds stacked against it, and despite the cynicism that comes with filmmaking and familiarity, I left it feeling like I had seen something I had never really seen prior in that way.
The acting rarely falters, with Chris Evans delivering, arguably, a career-best for himself, exemplified by a speech he offers late into the film, and, as prefaced, you love to root against the antagonists, with Tilda Swinton nearly stealing the show at times with how much anger she is able to bring out with her slimy, ghastly portrayal.
There are elements that some might not enjoy, and, it is a film that might you might lose affection for the more you try to dissect it, but, personally, I simply decided to leave my scalpel at home for its absurdities, instead, focusing on the imagery and unique, energized world-building it is able to muster. The grimy, desolate atmosphere is the same one that made me apprehensive to watch it at first, but is, all the same, engrossing and immersive when given the chance.
I thoroughly enjoyed Snowpiercer, considering it one of the best dystopian features I have seen in recent memory, and I would highly recommend it as one of the best South Korean produced features out there and a real feather in the cap of director Bong Joon-ho.