Snowpiercer (2013)

I think I am like most people and found out about this movie via Netflix.  Keep in mind that I am quite familiar with direct-to-video movies, enjoying many films in the 1980s and 1990s that would have been drive-in fare if that was a thing that still existed outside of a novelty at that time.  So, of course, I thought that is what Snowpiercer must be. 

As luck would have it, by the time I had found out more about it, Netflix had stopped carrying it, at least on the streaming option. But I kept hearing more and more about it, much like I had other movies I had skipped over in the past for one reason or another.

It is 2031, 17 years after the governments of the world attempted to solve global warming by spraying a chemical in the atmosphere, the world remains in a perpetual state of deep freeze due to the experiment.  Not just a normal ice age, but temperatures under which people freeze solid in a matter of minutes.

The remainder of humanity lives packed into the Snowpiercer, a train originally designed for luxury travel around the world and happens to be a self-contained environment.  Supposedly the builder, Wilford (Ed Harris), had guessed what would happen and invited anyone who could afford a ticket to board the train.  A number of people, in a desperate attempt to save themselves, stowed away and became an oppressed lower class forever isolated in the rear of the train.

As the 18th year approaches, a revolutionary named Curtis (Chris Evans), spurred on by his mentor Gilliam (John Hurt), prepares the passengers in the rear to revolt against Wilford and his forces.  The revolution gains momentum when Wilford's assistant Claude (Emma Levie) takes the children of Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and Andrew (Ewen Bremner), the latter who is brutally punished by Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) when he throws his shoe at Claude in protest.  Encouraged by communications from further up the train and the fact that it appears that Wilford's soldiers no longer have bullets for their guns, Curtis and his second Edgar (Jamie Bell) rise up at the next headcount and head for the prison section to free an addict named Kang-ho Song (Namgoon Minsoo), who brings along his daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko), who appears to have superhuman hearing abilities.  With the promise of his drugs, Kang-ho agrees to open the gates between each of the cars so the revolutionaries can progress.

They manage to do so easily for a time, but soon run into resistance in the form of Mason's special guard of axe-wielding soldiers.  Still, Curtis and his followers seem to gain the upper hand, until the train enters a long tunnel.  The soldiers, equipped with night-vision equipment, almost turn them back, but their defeat leads to the capture of Mason, who agrees to take them further up front, which leads to a confrontation with a schoolteacher (Alison Pill) whose main job seems to be indoctrinating the students to Wilford's propaganda and maintaining the class division.  She also manages to provide a distraction for a surprise attack, leading to heavy casualties among the revolutionaries. 

Curtis, along with Kang-ho and Yona still manage to push forward, glimpsing how the rest of the passengers have spent the years since the world's end as well as learning some hard truths about Wilford's intentions.  While Kang-ho and Yona have their own plans revolving around escaping the train, as it appears that the earth may be warming once again, Curtis learns that most of what he believed in his life was not what he thought, and he is given some hard choices for his future.

Snowpiercer is Joon-ho Bong's first English-language film and, surprisingly, I find that I have never seen any of his Korean works.  I can say that one advantage this movie has is that it doesn't really make any compromises for an international audience.  It may not be as strangely complex as most Asian sci-fi and horror films tend to be, but that is both to its advantage and due to the fact of it being based on a French graphic novel. He does use the claustrophobic environment to his advantage, and the fight scenes and choreography would be right at home in an Asian film.  It is good that they are not filmed in a more Hollywood manner.

While both Hurt and Harris are great in their roles, both characters are plot devices to control the development of Curtis's story.  Chris Evans proves that he is not a one-note actor, falling perfectly into the role of both a man who wants to do something to help his friends but that is reluctant to take on the mantle of leadership.  The other standout performance is Tilda Swinton.  While Wilford seems to be reclusive and have little grip that what he is doing is evil (he seems to actually believe that what he is doing is best for the survival of humanity), Mason revels in trappings of power and materialism, with a bit of misplaced religious zealotry thrown in for good measure. 

While Snowpiercer has received largely positive reception among fans and critics, I still have a few problems.  Surprisingly, it's not the idea of a train serving as a self-contained environment, since it seems that part of the plot was quite well conceived, including a specific plot point that is the result of such an enclosed and hard-to-maintain ecosystem.  Part of the problem is that a good portion of the movie is quite original, but by the end it turns out to have some of the same plot twists as the Matrix trilogy. 

My other problem reveals a bit of a spoiler.  A major point in the movie is that all life on the surface was destroyed due to the major temperature drop.  So, how did some animals, even if they are adapted to an arctic climate, survive through the period when supposedly nothing could?  I understand the message of life persisting, but that usually has to do with smaller flora and fauna which can become adapted to microenvironments, or even extremophiles or microbial life.  The life shown to be existing would need more than that to maintain its survival, even if it did (as I would assume happened) find pockets where temperatures were at survivable levels.  It is also not the first thing I would want to see if I was one of the last few human survivors.

So, once again, we have a movie that is quite creative and exciting through most of its run, only to reach a typical ending that feels tacked on only to make things look not so bleak.  And this time we can't blame Hollywood, as Joon-ho's fans fought hard to make sure his version got released by the Weinsteins rather than one of their famously butchered ones.  According to him, though, there are other survivors, but just weren't shown due to budget reasons.  And, in the novels, there is another train involved as well, so maybe the passengers won't trade the belly of one beast for another after all.

Snowpiercer (2013)
Time: 126 minutes
Starring: Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Ed Harris
Director: Joon-ho Bong


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