There was such a giddy sense of anticipation for Bong Joon-ho’s first English language film that ultimate disappointment seemed almost inevitable. But, where his countrymen Park Chan-wook and Kim Ji-woon failed to transplant their unique cinematic perspective into Stoker and The Last Stand respectively, Snowpiercer is by comparison a monumental triumph of dystopian science fiction.
Adapted from the French graphic novel Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer is set in a distant future where a man-made ecological disaster has triggered a new ice age that has engulfed the planet and killed off all but a few hundred lucky survivors. Their entire existence now resides within the confines of a single train, which permanently circumnavigates the Earth once every year.
The train is broken up into carriages, with each class residing in a different, predetermined section. The action begins at the rear, where the have-nots are plotting to stage the latest in a string of revolts – hoping to reach the engine at the front of the train and take control. Standing in their way is…well they’re not entirely sure. None of them has ever been any closer to the front than they are now. Their only contact with the upper classes that live ahead of them are the armed guards who maintain order and feed them foul gelatinous bricks of protein, and Mason (Tilda Swinton) – who keeps order according to the laws dictated by their elusive leader, Wilford – he who built the train and is exalted almost as a god.
While the frail, crippled Gilliam (John Hurt) imparts wisdom upon the impoverished community in the rear of the train, it is Curtis (Chris Evans) who emerges as their reluctant leader and agrees to front the latest assault. And so, outnumbered, outgunned and almost entirely unaware of exactly what dangers lie ahead of them, Curtis, Edgar (Jamie Bell) and the rest of their desperate kind begin their charge – which essentially spans the entire running time of the film.
One of the great pleasures of Snowpiercer is its sense of discovery, as we learn only as our heroes do what is behind the next door and exactly how diverse, surreal and batshit insane life really is aboard the train. Save for a few exterior shots reminding us of the constant momentum and speed of this ecosystem, and the ferocious hostility of the environment outside, Bong locates the action entirely within the carriages of the locomotive.
Praise must go, therefore, to cinematographer Hong Kyung-po and editor Steve M. Choe for creating a film so visually exciting and dynamic, claustrophobic yet somehow limitless, all within the cramped confines of a string of railway carriages. This is helped in large part by an arresting score from Marco Beltrami and the dazzling production design of Ondrej Nekvasil, who surprises and confounds the audience each time a new door opens and the rebels break through a new layer of their environment. I would take a moment to list out a few of my favourites would that not spoil the impact of the numerous reveals.
The reputation of Bong in the West, off the back of a string of exemplary South Korean films (Barking Dogs Never Bite, Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother) is clearly in evidence by the roster of international talent he has assembled both behind the camera and in front of it. The cast of Snowpiercer is both eclectic and uniformly excellent, with South Korean superstar Song Kang-ho and The Host‘s Ko Ah-sung more than holding their own opposite the likes of Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, Ewen Bremner and Alison Pill.
Tilda Swinton almost steals the show as the school matronly sheriff of the train, Mason. Broad Northern accent and hideous false teeth, she is vile, condescending and ruthless in the best possible way and in less capable hands could have easily become a cartoonish lampoon of herself. Swinton, however, creates a villainness to rival Cruella de Vil, teetering just shy of pantomime, while proving genuinely frightening in her resolve and dedication.
However, Snowpiercer belongs to Chris Evans every step of the way. He has never come close to delivering a performance as rich, layered and complex as Curtis before now. It is quite simply the best thing he has ever done. Curtis is secretive, noncommittal, yet ultimately a strong and resourceful leader – something the audience never honestly doubts for a second. However, as the film progresses and his resolve is put to the test, it soon becomes apparent that he is a far more complicated and flawed individual than we could have ever imagined, and for Evans to have leapt into a role like this hot off two performances as the squeaky clean Captain America is an astounding testament to his bravery and dedication as a performer. Chris Evan is a revelation in Snowpiercer.
There is so much to praise in this film that I could go on forever, but to do so would be to spoil many of its discoveries, treats and standout set pieces. Bong is that rare filmmaker who succeeds in creating works of genre cinema that feel infinitely more important and impressive than their source trappings might at first suggest. Snowpiercer, after all, is first and foremost a science fiction action thriller – an incredibly dark and violent one at that – but one with big ideas about humanity, heroism and our fight – and indeed our right – for survival, that are too often disregarded in favour of grand spectacle and cheap thrills. Bong Joon-ho ensures that Snowpiercer is intelligent, challenging and, honestly, remains very Korean in its execution, while also succeeding as a kinetic, visually arresting and hugely imaginative thrill ride with the wallop of a runaway locomotive.