What would the world, society become if there were only a handful of people left? That’s probably the first question to be answered by a post-apocalyptic science fiction movie like Snowpiercer. Director Joon-ho Bong (who mastered the creature-feature in his Korean-language hit, The Host) adds a bit of a high-concept twist by taking a futuristic bullet train to be the scope of the new universe. In this story, humanity’s fight against global-warming leads to a bit of overkill that turns the world into a sub-zero wasteland. The only humans who remain are the ones lucky enough to have boarded the Snowpiercer, a closed-ecosystem, self-sustaining train which perpetually drives around the globe. Almost two decades after the outside-world came to a frozen end, the train still runs and a miniaturized version of the world, with its class system, its virtues and vices, exist in a concentrated and reinvented way on this train. The front of the train is reserved for the rich, First Class passengers, and the tail of the train is for the poor, starving masses who nevertheless manage to live on despite being kept down by the hierarchy.
Chris Evans plays Curtis, the would-be rebellion leader who (along with his sidekick Edgar, played by Jamie Bell, and mentor Gilliam, played by John Hurt) are planning to seize an opportunity to make their way to the front in order to seize control of the Sacred Engine. On the surface, this seems like little more than a train heist or some other typical action story, but it’s actually more of a parable or allegory that looks at some very fundamental human questions: meaning, destiny, transcendence, community, duty and love. All that aside, it’s still a well-made action-adventure, all confined to the four walls of a speeding train.
Alongside Evans, Octavia Spencer plays a desperate mother, trying to recover her son who’s been forcibly taken away from her to the front of the train. Spencer is a wonderful actress, and this kind of strong-willed, desperate character is right up her alley. Tilda Swinton is perfectly cast as the villain, Minister Mason, who comes across as a Thatcher-esque caricature of a privileged leader who has no strength of character beyond the rules that give her power. This is very much a character-driven film (despite its high-concept sci-fi premise) because basically all the plot is doing is following these rebels as they fight from one section of the train to the other. Each represents a kind of human environment (there is a greenhouse, an aquarium — with sushi bar, a classroom, a night club, a spa, etc.), each becoming more and more luxuriant as they make their way forward.
Again, what makes this movie allegorical is that clearly there are not enough train cars performing all the necessary functions to satisfy the needs of a small civilization. Realistic questions like “Where are the rich getting all their fancy clothes?”, “Unless someone is manufacturing new items, shouldn’t they be using 20 year old ‘everything’ by now?”, “Where does everyone sleep?” don’t really get satisfactorilly answered, but that’s really not the point. What is the point is the satirical examination of society, with its laws (preventing underprivileged from moving forward in the train, etc.), vices (there’s a narcotic that is made from train exhaust and sold to the more-decadent members of the train society) and religion (everyone is supposed to worship the Sacred Engine, which gives them all life and Wilford, the man who maintains it — Minister Mason spews the rhetoric, and there’s even a bit of a hymn-sing about Wilford in the classroom). I love that kind of imaginative social commentary — it’s what sci-fi should really be about (especially post-apocalyptic stories, which strip away the conventions of our current society and thereby make statements about it). It’s done pretty well in this movie. There are some good scenes and good speeches, including a number of semi-twists as the end.
Snowpiercer, as many have been saying, is a kind of sci-fi movie that we’ve been missing for a while (as the super-hero box office invasion continues), that kind of leaves you scratching your heads and give the themes and ideas a thought. I remember leaving the theatre after watching The Matrix first feeling a bit indignant and annoyed — proud to point out numerous plot holes and logical gaps — but then thinking about it for a long time after. While this movie isn’t quite as original as The Matrix, it’s definitely an icy blast of fresh air in a genre that has gotten a little stale. (4 out of 5)
BTW, I know this movie has newly gone into wide release (so it’s not technically part of my backlog), but since IMDB.com says that it’s a 2013 movie, and especially since my 50 movie marathon is going so slowly, I’m going to consider this one a gimme and count it anyway.