Relentless, thoughtful and weirdly surprising: Snowpiercer is a twisty, sci-fi rollercoaster that’s tough to pin down and just as hard to forget. South Korean director Joon-ho Bong channels a dystopian world in the somewhat comic style of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil but swaps out the political satire for action and allegory. The result is a tonic for those bored of CGI spectacles and a top-shelf option for the holiday weekend.
The start, however, is a bit rickety. Cliche news clips and text boxes lay the foundation of Snowpiercer’s post-apocalyptic world. So it goes: In an effort to curb global warming, nations released a chemical into the upper atmosphere that not only snuffed out the warming problem, it also killed all life on Earth and made the planet into a snowball. The only humans that remain are on an enormous train that circles the Earth once a year, and it’s done so 17 times so far. The passengers are divided by class. Those in first class ride near the front of the train, enjoying steak dinners and saunas. Those in the back are treated like cattle, living off of gelatinous bricks called “protein bars.” It’s here, in these filthy cars, that the story starts.
Curtis (Chris Evans) is a sort-of everyman who leads a rebellion of the plebs with his wise-cracking sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell). They storm the guards and take the train, car by car, with the help of a locksmith drug addict named Nam (Kang-ho Song). With each car taken, the scenery changes, almost like the levels of a video game. Some cars are filled with masked henchmen wielding axes, offering fight scenes in which Bong doesn’t mind getting gory or having fun with slow-motion/ninja-knife-move sequences. Other cars give insight into the train itself, how it operates as a closed ecosystem, in providing food and a semblance of human culture. It’s quickly learned that those not in the back of the train hold Wilford, the train’s conductor, to be their savior, almost as if he were Christ himself. One of these is the snooty authoritarian Mason (Tilda Swinton).
Her performance is wonderful, so much so that it threatens to outshine Evans and Bell. But Snowpiercer isn’t really about these characters or a rebellion moving through a bizarre, futuristic train. On a deeper level, it’s about structure, justice and the idea of people “being in their place.” The train is, after all, an allegory to our current-day world — tech overlords on top, laborers at the bottom — and there are parts of the film that effectively speak to the need for a systematic, precise structure to ensure humanity’s progress and survival. Yet there’s also this mad human urge in the film to risk the collapse of humanity in order to build it up anew, in such a way that feels much more just, more free. But when the risks are so high, what’s the moral choice? Bong just throws that question in your face, and you’ve got to hold on to it. This is, perhaps, Snowpiercer’s greatest strength: It’s got a lot of ground to cover, and it doesn’t pretend to wait up for you.
Snowpiercer is playing at the St. Anthony Main Theatre.