Snowpiercer (2013)



Joon-ho Bong

Chris Evans (Curtis), Kang-ho Song (Namgoong Minsoo/”Nam”), John Hurt (Gilliam), Tilda Swinton (Mason), Octavia Spencer (Tanya), Ah-sung Ko (Yona), Ed Harris (Wilford), Jamie Bell (Edgar), Ewen Bremner (Andrew), Vlad Ivanov (Franco the Elder), Adnan Haskovic (Franco the Younger), Luke Pasqualino (Grey), Steve Park (Fuyu), Paul Lazar (Paul), Clark Middleton (Painter)

Ice Age (caused by chem-trails)

“Soon after dispersing CW-7 [the chemical which was meant to combat global warming] the world froze, all life became extinct.  The precious few who boarded the rattling ark [the titular train] are humanity’s last survivors.” – Opening text.

This movie is a very detail-rich film and as such I don’t feel like walking through the minefield of vaguely explaining things without going into specific details so this is your spoiler warning as I’m about to ruin the whole thing for you. You should totally watch this movie anyway. It’s a lot of fun and makes you think and junk. Go on, I’ll still be here when you get back.

Doomsday films often skew toward the surreal or esoteric but few have as weird and high-concept of a premise as Snowpiercer.  The story goes that, as a way to combat global warming, an experimental chemical was released into Earth’s atmosphere.  The chemical worked far too well and the world was plunged into sub-zero temperatures that have persisted for decades.  The world’s only survivors are aboard a futuristic train that circles the globe and can withstand the most extreme of weather conditions.

The survivors are split into classes based upon the price of their ticket.  The First Class passengers are the bourgeoisie; living a life of excessive luxury and greed at the front, second only to the engineer himself.  The Business Class passengers are upper level workers (Security, soldiers, etc.) who subjugate the lowest class.  The Tail Sectioners are the poor bastards “lucky” enough to hop on the train before everyone froze to death; they’re a beaten-down slave caste forced to live in filth and squalor, fed only by gelatinous protein blocks in the over-crowded ghetto of the last car.

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Our main character, Curtis (Chris Evans of The Losers and Not Another Teen Movie), is a would-be revolutionary who will-be as soon as the opportunity presents himself.  Someone from the front of the train is sending him messages, telling him about a technician imprisoned near the tail – Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song of The Host and The Good, The Bad, and The Weird) – who can open the doors between cars.  His plan is to make it to the front of the train and kill Wilford (Ed Harris of Radio and Stepmom), the self-invented god-king of traintopia, and restore order to the classes.  The tail-section’s defacto leader; an old man named Gideon (John Hurt of Immortals and The Tigger Movie) backs Curtis’ plan.

Things are spurred along when a First Class passenger comes back and takes two children with her and Curtis begins to suspect that the guards have no ammunition for their guns. Curtis proves his theory and the tail-sectioners fall upon their oppressors en masse, making their way forward in the train. They break out Nam, who agrees to help them if they give him and his daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko of The Host) each a lump of Kronole – an extremely volatile narcotic to which Yona and Nam are both addicted – for each door opened.

At first, things go pretty smooth with minimal opposition. Even a potentially revolution-ending skirmish in a car full of axe-wielding front-sectioners equipped with night-vision goggles goes pretty well despite the fact that Curtis’ protege and friend Edgar (Jamie Bell of Billy Elliot and The Eagle) is preventably killed when Curtis jumps at an opportunity to catch the detestable Maggie Thatcher-esque Mason (Tilda Swinton of The Beach and Michael Clayton) rather than rushing to his aid.

Unfortunately things only get worse as front-sectioners prove to have a hidden stash of firearms and manage to get armed opposition behind Curtis’ dwindled forces as they move forward. After a fight with Franco the Elder (Vlad Ivanov) only Curtis, Nam, and Yona remain to move on. Nam tells Curtis the that real reason he is hoarding Kronole is so that he can use it to blow a hole in the side of the train (it’s basically plastic explosives) and escape. He sees the train as an unworkable atmosphere, fixable only by abandonment, and he’s noticed that every year the train passes over a very long bridge more and more of a crashed plane can be seen from above, which means the ice is melting.  The door to the engine compartment opens and the woman who stole the kids earlier shoots Nam.

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Curtis’ meeting with Wilford is gut-wrenching.  Harris reveals that he was the mysterious person sending Curtis the messages and that the revolution, as well as past revolutions over the last seventeen years, were carefully coordinated by Wilford and Gilliam as a means of population control.  Each time there’s a revolution,  74% of the tail-sectioners die and the remaining few lose their violent tendencies and put up with it until the population rises again.

The car with the axe-men was intended to be the end of the failed coup but Curtis’ quick thinking insured that they moved on so Wilfred had Gilliam killed as punishment.  Wilfred commends Curtis on being the first revolutionary to make it all the way to the front and offers him the job of conductor, essentially what he was trying to do anyway.  This is when Yona breaks in and digs up a panel in the floor and reveals one of the stolen children who is serving the purpose of a missing part in making the train run.

You see, Snowpiercer is an onion of depressing reveals.  When we start out the movie we open on a pretty dismal world where a man’s wife is beaten and her hand broken because her husband refuses to go to the front of the train (the reason being that the guard asked for a concert violinist and he refuses to go unless his wife, also a concert violinist, comes with.)  But then kids get kidnapped, one of the fathers throws a shoe at the abductor and is summarily punished by having his arm hung out the side of the train until it freezes solid and smashed with a sledgehammer.

By the time that most of the cast gets violently picked off one-by-one we think we’ve reached the most downtrodden moment of the movie.  We are wrong.  As Nam and Curtis sit there in the inner workings of the train, waiting to get into the engineer’s compartment, Curtis tells Nam about the first few months on the train for the tail-sectioners.  He tells of violence and cannibalism, particularly against the young and weak, he makes a point to tell Nam that babies taste best.

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A lot of moments in Snowpiercer involve a character saying or doing something offhand that makes no sense, to where the audience thinks they missed some explanation, but it pays off with an explanation later.  One such moment is partway through when Gilliam and Curtis are talking.  Gilliam tells Curtis he would make a good leader but Curtis shakes this off and tells Gilliam that he can’t be a good leader because he has two arms, at which point Gilliam rolls up Curtis’ sleeve and addresses a scar on his forearm.

Curtis’ story continues that a group of men killed a woman and took her baby to eat, but an old man stepped forward and borrowed a young man’s knife; he used the knife to cut off his own arm and told the men to eat that instead.  The man was Gilliam (who is missing both an arm and a leg), the young man was Curtis, and the baby was Edgar.

Curtis goes on to explain that several tail-sectioners began amputating limbs to save the lives of others but Curtis could never work up the courage to do it.  The payoff to this bit involves Eric jamming his arm into the train’s gears so he can save the child trapped in the compartment.  It comes off as a bit hackneyed, I appreciate that he felt in need of redemption but he could’ve stuck a chair in there or something.  There’s no hurry.

Nam and Curtis embrace Yona and the child as Nam’s bomb blows a hole in the side of the train and causes it to derail, killing pretty much every single living person aboard.  Yona and the kid step out into the acrtic cold, dressed in repurposed bourgeois fur coats.  They see a bear, which represents hope.  Or maybe it just represents a bear.  I don’t know.

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I know this to not be the case, but it kind of feels like Chris Evans was cast as Curtis due to his work on Captain America.  Having the cinematic face of the most valorous superhero in existence playing our revolutionary leader sends a message to the audience that this man is completely right and that we should never doubt him, but just as is the case with any revolutionary he’s probably the least valorous character aside from the villains.

In the opening of Duck, You Sucker Sergio Leone puts a quote from Chairman Mao: “The revolution is not a social dinner, a literary event, a drawing or an embroidery; it cannot be done with elegance and courtesy.  The revolution is an act of violence.”  That says it all, really.  Revolutionaries aren’t heroes; by definition they can’t be heroes.  To overthrow a group with power, one has to become a monster and do some despicable things and as such they can never truly be a part of the ideal world which they are attempting to create.  Wilfred is aloof to the point that he doesn’t even seem to care when his whole world comes crashing down around him, Curtis wants to unseat Wilfred but his plan doesn’t seem to extend past “take the  train”, and Nam’s plan literally kills almost every person on the planet except a drug-addicted teenager and a small waifish child who now have to live on an inhospitable ice planet.  Everyone’s an asshole and humanity is extinct, roll credits.

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We have a a multinational case of delightful actors with Tilda Swinton, Chris Evans, Kang-ho Song, and Octavia Spencer standing out the most.  The setting isn’t entirely original (surprisingly the plot overview and trajecory is fairly similar to the Hunger Games series) but it has that unique weird quality to it and that’s worth more than anything.  Sure, Snowpiercer is a really good and effective film but much like other filmic oddities such as Daybreakers and The Taint, the real miracle is that anything so off-kilter and weird exists at all.  The fact that this is also a  very good movie is just a cherry on top.

Yes, the train concept is more than a little silly but it’s part of the film’s goofy charm and setting the movie in a bunker could just never be so effective.  Part of the joy of the film is seeing what each successive car may hold.  The cars often seem much too small and the train seems to grow and shrink throughout as needed.  No upper-class living quarters or armory is ever shown and there’s a sort of dream logic to the train that makes this feel like a gritty remake of The Polar Express.  This dreamy, goofy quality also conceals the darkness coming later in the movie.  At times, Snowpiercer feels like an action-comedy and that really hammers the knife in when the bad stuff happens later on.

There is some dodgy CG and the dramatic payoff of the story is pretty weak in comparison to the journey, but it’s still a lot more good than it is bad.  The talent on display alone is worth the price of admission; movies like this don’t happen very often so it’s nice to enjoy them while you can.

Snowpiercer can be found on Blu-ray, DVD, and Instant through Amazon and is available on Netflix. You can also check out the graphic novels it was based on in two parts.

“We will both go to hell, you and me!”

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