Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer is the most exciting summer action movie of the summer. It’s also a excellent example of smart, inventive, science fiction. It’s a profound and powerful film about poverty and social class and income inequality. It’s a religious allegory of sophistication and intelligence. It’s a cautionary tale and a meditation on leadership and power. And the film itself is a metaphor for our lonely and desperate sojourn on this rickety craft we call planet earth. It’s also probably not playing at your local cineplex. It certainly wasn’t playing at mine; I had to catch it at an art house in Salt Lake.
The producers of this film made the cheeky decision to release it the same weekend that Michael Bay’s fourth Transformer film came out, a movie that Snowpiercer is approximately 194,000 times a better movie than. But Snowpiercer does not have the essential elements needed for a film to be embraced by the summer popcorn movie crowd: a pretty girl in shorts and skimpy top, and the smashed-up destruction of a major world city. Nor does it feature trucks riding dinosaurs. So it’s getting the slow, city-by-city art house release strategy. Which means that so far, it’s made (approximately) 194,000 times less money than Bay’s movie has made, or is going to make. This is a situation you can personally make a small contribution towards rectifying: may I urge you to start this weekend.
Because Snowpiercer is just so, so good. Here’s the premise: earth has been rendered uninhabitable by a world-wide freeze. Shot after shot of a world in icy desolation. But eccentric billionaire Wilford somehow managed to build a train that could survive those conditions, and that could run a permanent looping course over rails covering the entire planet. The train’s engine is self-sustaining, and though ecologically a closed system, the engine can itself provide power, water and nourishment for a human population. For seventeen years, a few thousand folks have survived on this train, the Snowpiercer. They are rigidly divided by class. At the very front of the train, is the engine, tended by Wilford (who is, by now, essentially worshipped as a God). At the very rear of the train are the poor people, crammed into tiny bunks, with just enough water to drink and to take care of sanitary needs, but not enough to wash up much. They’re fed on ‘protein bars,’ horrible gelatinous purple square things, strictly rationed. Iron gates guard the other sections of the train, and initially we can only imagine how the people live in the rest of the train. And from time to time, armed soldiers come back to the poor section and requisition people needed for some undescribed tasks elsewhere on the train. The astonishing Tilda Swinton plays Mason, the liaison between Wilford and the poor, and a ferociously comical propagandist for the social order. Everyone has a place in the world, she insists. You would not wear a shoe on your head; nor should the poor expect the benefits due to the wealthy. And so she culls them: an elderly violinist is separated from his wife (who protests, and is savagely beaten). Children are carefully measured and taken away. And the poor folks seethe, and plot.
They’re led by Curtis, superbly played by Chris Evans, of Captain America fame. He’s organized, efficient, a natural leader, though he deflects any praise on that account. He also is haunted by secrets from his past (which, when eventually revealed, are a psychic punch in the guts). He’s advised by the one-armed Gilliam (John Hurt), who may also have the ability to supplant Wilford and run the train. A friend, Tanya, (Octavia Spencer) brings her own maternal ferocity, when her son Tim (Marcanthonee Reis) is taken off by Mason. And he has a younger assistant, Edgar (Jamie Bell, the kid from Billy Elliott). And from time to time, a capsule with a message inside shows up in their protein bars, and Curtis plans his revolution. He’s going to fight his way to the front of the train. And he’s going to take over the engine.
The first step is to bypass the gates separating sections, and one of the cryptic capsule messages informs him that a security expert, someone able to open gates, can be found in the security detention area, which Curtis thinks he can reach. And indeed, the first battle of the revolution does gain them that detention space, where detainees are stored in lockers. And we meet Minsoo, played by the superb Korean actor Kang-ho Song. Who tells them he requires a drug, Kronol, and wants two cubes of it every time he opens a gate. And who also insists he won’t work without his 17-year-old girlfriend, Yona (Ah-sung Ko).
Kang-ho Song starred in Bong’s 2006 film, The Host, my favorite monster movie of all time. He’s a tremendous presence in this film as well. As Minsoo, he is soulful, intelligent, brave, untrustworthy and addicted, and deeply secretive. Curtis needs him, but never quite trusts him, which turns out to be sensible. Yona is similarly mysterious, in another terrific performance.
The heart of the film, then, is the journey through the train by Curtis and his increasingly depleted band of impoverished warriors. And nothing that subsequently happens is in any way predictable. Every time Minsoo opens another gate, we see another sub-stratum of Snowpiercer society, another world opens up, and they’re just astonishingly inventive and interesting. And meanwhile, the train motors on, through a frozen wasteland, and from time to time we see icy barriers, results of an avalanche or snowfall, and we see Snowpiercer smash its way through, at times careening wildly on two wheels, nearly derailing, but always moving forward.
Early in the film, Bong describes the train as ‘an ark,’ and, watching it, I teased out one potential meaning. The train seems all-powerful, self-sufficient, completely safe, a refuge and port-in-the-storm. But it’s not safe at all. It’s actually kind of ramshackle, an improvisation, not all that carefully designed or engineered. And yet the people seem largely unaware of that reality (which we, in the audience, see all too well). And the champagne pours and steak and seafood appears on wealthy folks’ plates. Well, isn’t that our position here, now, on the Planet Earth? Global catastrophe beckons, but we’d rather squabble over the politics of science? And we don’t much trouble ourselves over it, as long as we’re well-fed, well-housed, well-clothed, and able to reproduce? And we’re vaguely aware of people living lives of starvation and despair, and we may occasionally make some noise about helping them. But we also send out Tilda Swinton to lecture about the inevitability of social classes and the destructiveness of threatening the existing social order. We’re on top, and like it that way. And if our craft frequently careens on the edge of disaster, it really always has righted itself, has it not? So not to worry.
To explore other possible meanings and ideas in this film would require that I reveal details of the plot, which, for this film, I’d rather not divulge. Ordinarily, I’m Mr. Spoiler, but this film isn’t in general release (yet), and I’d rather persuade you to see it than advance a critical conversation.
Suffice it to say that, an hour in, I made all sorts of predictions about what would happen, none of which turned out to be even a little bit true. And I never failed to be astonished by the endless inventiveness of this wonderful director and his production team. This is Bong’s first film with movie-star-like actors and American stars and, you know, a budget. I’ve loved his earlier work–especially The Host and Mother–and this film fulfills and exceeds the promise he’s previously shown.
A couple of days ago, I raved (possibly even over-raved) the new Planet of the Apes movie. I loved this film too, possibly even a little better. I saw it with a friend, and we were both blown away by it; couldn’t talk about anything else all the way home. See Snowpiercer. Do not miss this film. And then let’s talk, after you’ve seen it.