Snowpiercer is directed and co-written by Bong Joon-ho and is based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob. The film stars Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Go Ah-sung, John Hurt, and Ed Harris.
Is it possible that Snowpiercer is both one of the smartest and one of the dumbest movies you could ever imagine? The critical consensus would suggest the former, no doubt based on the almost headlong way that the film picks up nearly every post-apocalypse and environmental theme in existence, while not hesitating to also pile on themes and ideas of social hierarchy and human society. Perhaps it all boils down to ambition: Snowpiercer is easily one of the most ambitious movies to have come out in the 2010s. What other film to take place in one setting would have the audacity to tackle every possible theme that can be squeezed into a two hour run-time, when it's inevitable that something is going to stop making sense along the way? On the flip side, such an ambitious pursuit means that the film is going to do at least one or two things right. Hell, it ends up doing at least one or two things great. But when we talk about Snowpiercer being a dumb movie, we are referring to the way that the film takes ideas, throws them at the wall, and whatever sticks gets put into the movie. To say Snowpiercer is both a smart and dumb movie is a way of saying we get the best and the worst of the film's adrenaline-boosted ride for glory. Thankfully though, the good heavily outweighs the bad, so let's at least get it on the record that I find this to be a rather fine film that deserves a lot of praise.
For my entire life, I have always been fascinated by trains, yet I still am not sure how to explain the reasoning behind it. I played with train toys when I was younger, Thomas the Tank Engine was my go-to childhood show, and I felt naturally drawn to any movie or show that involved a train. Maybe a part of it is because trains move you to where you need to go, and I have always been someone that feels as if he needs to keep moving, aka always doing something of value. So when I first heard of Snowpiercer, you can bet I made it a top priority to find the time to see it. Unfortunately, the movie was released during that awkward period in life where I never went to the theater, so I never got that big-screen experience of the Snowpiercer train. Nonetheless, the film was a fun, worthwhile viewing during the one afternoon I finally got to see it, and it always stuck with me since, mostly for the reasons mentioned above. So upon a second viewing just recently, my thoughts on the film remain undeterred, and I imagine the same reaction for any more future viewings.
So, Snowpiercer is the name of the circumnavigational train where the film takes place. After an ill-fated attempt at stopping global warming, an ice age has ravaged nearly all of planet Earth. The surviving members of humanity spend their lives on the train, which is run by a mysterious person known as Wilford. Seventeen years go by on the train, and the survivors are segregated: the wealthy elites enjoy luxuries in the front cars, while the poor live in the mucky, overcrowded tail cars. Among the neglected tail members is Curtis Everett (Evans), who sparks a revolt and goes on a mission to the get to the front of the train.
Because Snowpiercer is always moving forward, there aren't too many specific plot points where characters are grouped together in a specific location. Honestly, if I were to spoil the entire plot of the movie, it would only be slightly longer than the plot summary you just read. Once the movie gets going with the tail revolt, it doesn't slow down for a single second, not until near the end when it sort of runs out of physical space to work in, and the film is almost forced to go into a meditative state, where it further dissects the main ideas and themes that are still alive and kicking. Given the pacing and the story structure, Snowpiercer is a nitpicker's worst nightmare. Questions like, "How do people use the bathroom" and, "How does electricity work on the train" are given little to no explanation, and that's simply because there's no need to give such trivial matters any explanation. What matters is the film's structure and what the structure represents.
- The one idea that works the most in Snowpiercer is how the train acts as an allegory on the human social hierarchy. The tail cars house the most deprived and neglected survivors of the apocalypse, while the front cars are home to the elites. Fed up with their state of living, the tail members revolt against the elite, demanding answers from the mysterious Wilford in charge of it all. I would not argue too much that Snowpiercer is also an allegory on capitalism, because it's never explored too deeply how exactly people on the train are put into one social class or another. I think the heart of the allegory lies in the treatment of the tail members, and what is represented through their eventual revolt. Armed guards constantly watch over the tail members, forcing them to sit in groups and even going as far as to take some of their children away. The revolt begins when Curtis risks his life to prove that the guns used by the guards have no bullets, implying that the real weapon used to keep the tail members in line is fear.
The world of Snowpiercer utilizes fear by tapping into the idea that the divide between the wealthy and the poor is rooted in control. Minister Mason (Swinton) constantly talks down to the tail members, using a shoe as a symbol for how the tail belongs at the very bottom/foot of the train's priority list. The guards amputate a man by freezing one of his arms and then hitting the arm with a hammer, all for the other tail members to see. These early moments in the film are examples of how Mason and the guards use intimidation and punishment to give the impression of control. After all, aren't intimidation and punishment meant to invoke some form of fear? The truth of the matter though is that Mason and the guards only have the impression of control, and when Curtis reveals this by proving the guns have no bullets, it gives the poor the encouragement they need to finally break free.
In real-world society, fear and control tend to keep poor, oppressed people trapped in their own crappy way of living. Fear can be rooted in the decisions that people make and the habits they develop over time. Some people may also feel they have little to no control over their own life. But we all know that fear is an obstacle we can overcome, and that everyone can control what they believe and what choices they make. The tail members in Snowpiercer break the fear and control barriers that have kept them trapped for so long, no longer willing to be defined by the social hierarchy that the train has established.
- It is reasonable to err on the side of caution when it comes to an action movie that takes place in a confined setting such as a train. The action in Snowpiercer is anything but confined and indistinguishable: it's clean, hard-hitting, and creative. Fight scenes between the tail members and the train's security personnel do an outstanding job of showing who is where and making something truly interesting out of watching a bunch of people punch, kick, and swing axes at each other. For example, there is one fight scene where the train security personnel are aware of an upcoming tunnel, and thus, don night vision goggles. When Curtis and the tail members realize what is about to happen, the scene then cuts to a near first-person point of view, where we see everything through night vision and watch as the tail members scramble to stay alive. When things are running at full speed in the middle of the film, the action operates like a runaway truck: barreling its way forward and smashing through anything that dares to stand in its way.
- I suppose I could do nothing but continue to give endless praise to Snowpiercer, but I can't come out and call it a dumb movie without mentioning some parts about it that are, well, kind of dumb. A lot of what's dumb about Snowpiercer revolves around one simple question: why a train? A train makes sense for the sake of commentary on hierarchical society, but, the idea of having a train run perpetually around the world on a clearly defined train track where the survivors can tell things such as when it's New Year's Day, just seems like a logistical disaster waiting to happen. It's almost as if the train was concocted with the purpose of creating a new social hierarchy, instead of letting social hierarchy be something that spawns naturally as a product of the new environment that the survivors are adapting to. Believing something to be forced instead of naturally developed over time hurts the intended allegory, even if the movie makes little to no mention of how the hierarchy was created. An easier way to say this is that Snowpiercer is almost forcing us to believe that the way things are on the train is just how they are, and that there's little need to ask questions. The "being dumb" issue lies in that Snowpiercer can't quite bridge the gap between its thought-provoking ideas and the concept that leads to those thought-provoking ideas. It's super cool watching what unfolds when we're on the train. However, when it comes to the story behind how the train was conceived and how human society got there, well, I guess it's better than staying at home and inevitably freezing to death.
If you're going to watch Snowpiercer, you sort of have to accept that a lot of dumb comes along with all the smarts. More often than not though, Snowpiercer is very smart, particularly in the way the film represents the real-world divide between the elite and the oppressed, providing an analysis of human social hierarchy that goes above and beyond many other post-apocalypse films. Snowpiercer also has some kick-ass action, so if you're not in the mood to be an academic scholar, the movie also works as two hours of almost nonstop entertainment. The casting is great, and there's a high re-watchability level to boot. With so much good stuff on the surface, I think it's okay if we don't think too hard about some of the dumber, more iffy stuff that lives underneath.
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