South Korea, 2013
Directed by Joon-ho Bong
Written by Joon-ho Bong and Kelly Masterson
Based on the graphic novel “Le Transperceneige” by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette
Starring Chris Evans, Kong-ho Song, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, and Ed Harris
Snowpiercer is all about atmosphere. Like other great Korean films, its power is demonstrated through visual poetry. There is a flow, a rhythm, to the story. Also in true Korean fashion, it is simultaneously beautiful and grotesque, and we find ourselves unable to look away from any of the disturbing details.
The story takes place in an icy future. The world is virtually inhabitable and the only survivors must live on a single train, which never stops moving. The train is divided into classes. Some live in squalor at the rear, while the others party day and night at the front. Those in the back eat mystery protein bricks and the lucky few in front enjoy six-course meals and pop bottles of champagne. Injustice is deep, but their society is stable, controlled by the all-powerful Wilford in the front car. He who controls the engine controls the world, and so Wilford is essentially God. He controls his little world using his lieutenant, a slimy pompous monster named Mason, played in all her menacing evil by Tilda Swinton, who gives a most memorable performance.
When enough is enough those in the rear gather the courage to start a rebellion, led by Chris Evans’s character Curtis. With plenty of blood and amazing set pieces, they move their way forward on the train. Along the way they do battle with Wilford’s forces and discover the dark secrets of their world. We also learn dark secrets about our hero, Curtis, which I dare not give away. One of the biggest strengths of the movies is that the hero is not a good guy, just fed up and desperate.
The journey forward is filled to the brim with character and plot development, as well as some damn good fight scenes. But Snowpiercer is not an action movie in essence. It is chiefly a story about injustice, the balance of society, and how suffering fits into the world.
Whether you like the movie or not, you won’t be able to forget it. The images will be burned in your mind. It is one of the most daring movies I have ever seen, the kind that is not forgotten. I think in fifty years we’ll be looking back on Snowpiercer in the same way we look at a movie like Metropolis–as a landmark of futuristic science fiction that takes all the necessary risks and pays off big time.