Snowpiercer is a quirky, surreal, ultra-violent post-apocalyptic nightmare. It feels European, which makes sense, since it’s an indie film and it’s filmed primarily in the Czech Republic, but it’s directed by Korean filmmaker Joon-ho Bong and stars an incredibly international and eclectic cast. That makes sense too, since it’s the story of humanity’s last survivors following a human-made ice age (a failed attempt to counteract global warming). Those survivors managed to find their way onto a very long train that’s hurtling nonstop around much of the frozen planet (in some self-sustaining way which includes the “eternal engine”).
The train has different classes of people (as trains do) and those at the rear of the train (called the tail) are the lowest of the low, living off of some strange jelly manufactured by those ahead of them on the train. These people, led by an old one-armed, one-legged man named Gilliam (played by John Hurt), are regularly subjected to head-counts and to having one or more of their children taken away without explanation. It’s a miserable life, so these folks occasionally attempt a revolt, which is a very difficult (and ultimately ineffective) thing to do on a train, especially if the higher classes have all the weapons.
When one man gets too violent in his resistance, he is subjected to a bizarre form of punishment that only such an environment could produce. The punishment is ordered by a strange woman named Mason (Tilda Swinton in an extraordinary, barely-recognizable performance). Our hero, Curtis (Chris Evans), has had enough. Encouraged by mysterious notes being passed along from a sympathizer ahead of them on the train, Curtis and his close friend Edgar (Jaimie Bell) decide, with Gilliam’s support, to lead a rebellion.
Perhaps you’re thinking I’m giving too much of the plot away. Nope. The above all happens in the first few minutes of Snowpiercer. I won’t say more about the plot, though I will say there is ample opportunity for social commentary throughout. Too bad the filmmakers didn’t think some commentary on violence might have been helpful (actually, there is some commentary on violence, but it’s basically of the “people are inherently violent; what can you do” variety). Still, the social commentary is often quite profound, if not particularly deep, giving us lots to think about and talk about.
Among the more prominent members of the ensemble cast (who have not yet been mentioned) are: Olivia Spencer, Kang-ho Song, Ah-sung Ko, Alison Pill and Ed Harris. All of the acting is excellent, though Swinton, who is an amazing actor, stands out, and Chris Evans is the biggest surprise. I’ve seen him around (mostly as Captain America), but never thought he’d be up to the dark lead role in Snowpiercer. The claustrophobic atmosphere is brilliantly evoked, the cinematography and music are flawless, and I can see why many critics hailed the film as a masterpiece, in spite of its rather outrageous premise.
Unfortunately, critics seem to be immune to the stupidity of the violence and to the film’s assumption that people are, for the most part, pretty awful and capable of all manners of evil. I applaud the the fact that most of Snowpiercer’s characters are not black and white but various shades of grey, but I couldn’t disagree more with the cold assumption that humans are all murderers at heart. Add to that the needless graphic violence, and Snowpiercer is lucky to come away with ***+. My mug is up, but this was a lost opportunity for greatness due, once again, to a failure of the imagination.