Snowpiercer is promoted as a dystopia. That’s partially correct. More accurately, this a dystopian sci-fi in the vein of 80’s direct-to-video dystopian sci fi. These begin with a ridiculous premise and double down, heaping on more outrageous twists where a more self conscious film would try to justify its conceit. They build their cast from a rainbow of ethnicities, awkwardly assembled. Ultraviolence punctuates the plot, lest the wooden monologs drive away the intended audience. Snowpiercer’s true forebears are films like Trancers, Escape from New York, Eliminators, Day of the Dead, and The Terminator, not Metropolis or 1984.
In one of his recent films, the wonderful The Host, director Joon-ho Bong looked at his home country of South Korea and already saw something of a dystopia. His countrymen were under constant threat from their relatives in the north and protected by a foreign military who operated with such callousness and impunity to be regarded as occupiers. It’s the cavalier attitude of the latter that pollutes South Korean waters with toxic waste and births a monster.
Snowpiercer begins with the same basic framework. The world powers decide to reverse climate change through the release of a chemical agent, seemingly with little serious debate for the consequences. The witches brew works too well and freezes out all life on Earth, save for the few thousand or so people who managed to board a supertrain. The train itself is a wonder, running a circuit that spans every continent on the globe. The cross-Pacific route is enabled by railway between Alaska and Russia, and thus the full route traces the believed migration path that initially spread humans over the globe over tens of thousands of years. The full cycle for the train, though, takes a year.
The structure of the train represents a class hierarchy. The train’s operator, Wilson, lives sequestered in the lead car, he’s followed by an elite class and finally the lower classes who live in close quarters and under the thumb of an especially cruel security force. These are conditions that lead to riots, and Curtis (Chris Evans) believes previous bouts of unrest have depleted all of the guard’s ammunition. He marshals his fellow lower-classmen on a suicide mission to fight their way to Wilson’s car.
Snowpiercer may just be a low-risk way to introduce Joon-ho Bong, one of the world’s best directors, to the American market. Likewise it may also be an excuse for Bong to give his favorite actor, Kang-ho Song, a meaty role in a Western film. When foreign talent is invited to make movies for the American audience, it always feels like a well earned award, regardless of the quality of the final product. Even if Snowpiercer is not a great film, it still delivers on all of its goals (save for transcendence or any greater resonance outside of its artificial world). There are a number of fantastic action sequences and the world of the train is complex even if the logic doesn’t float.
Action movies are leading the way in a mass-market globalization. Snowpiercer follows the rules for this type of entertainment as enshrined by the recent Fast and Furious films. Many races are represented, many speaking in their native tongues without apology. Caucasians still get to drive the action, but the subplots entrusted to the minorities get meatier and meatier. While Chris Evans is given a typical hero’s arc, Song’s character takes a tangent and provides the eventual resolution without waiting for approval.
If Snowpiercer commits one great sin, most of the cast really doesn’t really “get it”. When the production throws plot hole after plot hole at you can’t rely on nuanced performance, you need to match outrageous with outrageous. Only Tilda Swinton, bless her, really understands the kind of film she’s in and crafts for it a phenomenal character that marries physical grotesquerie to the rigidity of a social worker caricature.
If there’s a theme linking Boon’s films its how adversity breaks apart the characters from their initial social circles and reassembles them into a makeshift but sturdy family unit. This seems as much a condition for survival as the victory capping the hero’s arc. Snowpiercer continues this trend, with a final image that combines the most potent symbol of climate change with the creation myth of the Korean Muism.