Snowpiercer — a South Korean film, based on a French graphic novel, starring English-speaking actors in a science fiction, post-apocalyptic story — is a unique film, to say the least. Set in the not-too-distant future, the world has been ravaged by a new ice age brought on by failed climate experiments and the only survivors left are those aboard the Snowpiercer, a massive train with a perpetual-motion engine that travels around the world on a global railroad system. The entire film follows the inhabitants of the tail section of the train who seek to overthrow the caste system set up in this dystopian train world.
Some post-apocalyptic films pull their punches when it comes to showing off the dire conditions, loss of humanity, and other tough to stomach depictions of life after the end of the world. Thankfully, Snowpiercer doesn’t. The set, costumes, and makeup of the tail section of the train are all appropriately disgusting and disheveled. The early interior sets are shadowy and claustrophobic and show off the strain and struggle of life in the lower classes of the Snowpiercer. The tone of movie is dark and grim, with plenty of gruesome violence and sickening moments. This is all contrasted brilliantly with the stark white exterior shots of the ice age stricken planet and the opulent front cars that we see later in the film. The amount of variety introduced in a film about a single train is amazing, and the film does a good job of making each leg of the journey feel different and memorable. As the rebel group progresses through the train to the front, viewers are treated to a whirlwind of different set designs, color palettes, and action set pieces in packed passenger cars, school rooms, an aquarium, prison cars, and even a nightclub. While it could be argued that the tone shifts throughout (as it does waver in places) and creates a disorganized feel, I think it is the contrast between the early dark sets and tone with the brighter sets and outlandish action later on that emphasizes the struggle between the classes in the movie and accentuates the disturbing qualities of the dystopic universe. Nothing makes a proper dystopia more than a thinly painted on exterior barely covering the underlying cracks, and the tonal shifts are more akin to this than simple sloppiness.
Chris Evans (that’s right, Captain America himself) stars in the lead role of Curtis, the man who is leading the charge of the tail section to the front of the train. It is refreshing to see Evans in a role that pushes him to portray a darker, more somber and dramatic character. It’s a nice break from what we’ve seen from him as of late, and boy does he bring it to the role. I had entirely forgotten his righteous, chipper performance as the first avenger and completely bought into the brooding, tormented character in Snowpiercer. Several quieter scenes in the second half of the movie showcase the burdens of his character in the story and allow Evans to display his talents in a dramatic role by offering the viewers a glimpse into the weight of the internal and external struggles of the character. The rest of the cast does a serviceable job, toeing the line between captivating figures and stereotype (i.e. the sassy African-American woman, the kung fu expert Asian, the plucky young sidekick, the wise old man). Some may be more caricature than character, but this makes them fun to watch and keeps things interesting. Another acting nod must go to Tilda Swinton as the delightfully evil Mason, one of the main villain’s trusted allies. Her mix of fervor and coldness is chilling and fun to watch as Curtis’ main adversary, but she also offers some devilish humor that is both funny and slightly infuriating for those rooting for the tail section. While some of these characters seem commonplace for the genre, this also makes them easy to understand and get behind, and helps them serve their true purpose in highlighting Evans’ character’s journey.
The journey, on paper, is a simple idea: push to the front of the train. However, when viewed in the context of how this influences the film, we can see how crucial and brilliant this basic directive is for the story. The characters are forced to move in one direction with no option for retreat, as that would surely result in their slaughter at the hands of the elite aboard the train. Much like the train, the action and plot constantly moves forward, which creates tension and a steady pace. The confined setting of the train also works in that it forces characters into conflict that they must overcome with their own abilities and efforts, leaving little room for coincidence or fate. The train also serves as a metaphor for one of the key themes of the story: everyone has their place. Each car of the train houses a particular industry or service that is vital for the continued existence and smooth (albeit unfair) operation of their isolated world. The underlying concepts of the film are nuanced; they enhance the overall narrative effect, and create an entertaining viewing experience
Unfortunately, although the story and action are highly enjoyable and certainly entertaining, they are also two aspects where I thought the movie struggled. The action, in a few parts, is dizzying and hard to follow. Simply put, the camera movement and tightly packed encounters make it difficult to watch. Viewers with motion sickness might not find those sections too thrilling, but they didn’t detract too much from the film, as other action sequences were on a smaller scale and easier to watch.
The story, oh the story. Is it amazing? Absolutely. Does it stutter in parts? Absolutely. I am impressed with the sparse use of exposition in the first 3/4 of the movie, in which the viewers are left wondering, piecing together the threads and backstory from the environment, dialogue, and character actions. I appreciate the vivid depiction of the world without hamfisted monologues or melodramatic voiceovers. Then I reach the climax of the film, and the philosophical, exposition riddled speeches begin. Yes, mostly everyone loves a good monologuing villain, it’s a classic archetype. But when the pace of the movie is tensely moving along, keeping viewers clinging to every word as they anxiously inch toward the edge of their seats, it’s usually not a good idea to take a Sunday stroll down exposition avenue before stopping at crazy plot twist town. The pace here putters to a stop as the final character delves into the moral and philosophical underpinnings of their post-apocalyptic world. Some moral questions are required, and the dense ending does present some very intriguing and worthwhile complications and theories, yet, there is a point where it becomes too much and too difficult to handle all at one time.
The final pacing isn’t the only problem, the plot also suffers from strange subplot interactions. There are some subplots that are completely abandoned, such as the apparent clairvoyance of one character, and there are other subplots that are inexplicably crammed into the last few minutes, such as the “proper place” of certain individuals. Nevertheless, some twists are appreciated, particularly the few surrounding the main character, Curtis, which don’t blindside the audience, but instead have a clear origin in the earlier part of the story. But it is also the handling of Curtis in the end that is a little disappointing as well. The story is undeniably his, and Chris Evans does a phenomenal job in such a gritty and despairing role; however, the final moments of the movie oddly shift the focus away from him. It stands out as a slightly head scratching move, and for those that don’t appreciate more open endings, this could be a stumbling block to enjoying the movie. Personally, I usually take these things in stride, and while it did bother me, it’s not impossible to get over. It might seem that I’m ranting against the story, but please understand that 3/4 of it is truly amazing and filled with nuance, drama, action, and tension. The director creates a fully realized dystopic, post-apocalyptic world that is a marvel to watch. Yes, the final scenes are not as strong, however, when taken as a whole, Snowpiercer is still much better than most action and post-apocalyptic movie out there and definitely worth the journey.