With its latitude to cover almost any conceivable subject matter, science fiction cinema can be a strangely derivative genre, with its bounty of post-apocalypse scenarios, rebellions against evil overlords, and broad sociopolitical commentary disguised as action stories. Part of this is simple risk management from studios eager to tap already proven recipes for success. And in that regard, director Bong Joon-ho’s dystopian fable Snowpiercer is no different, being a mash-up of familiar science-fiction conventions. But composition, execution and tone go a long way, and in this case, produce not just one of the best science fiction films of recent years, but also one of its most distinctive.
The story takes place in the near future, just a few decades after a disastrous attempt to control global warming results in an accidental, man-made Ice Age that kills off almost all life on the planet. The last bastion of civilization is Snowpiercer, an enormous supertech train that runs nonstop on a globe-spanning track, powered by a perpetual motion engine. There, humanity lives in microcosm, with the rich and privileged occupy the front cars, and conditions steadily worsening the further back you go. In the train’s squalid caboose, a revolutionary named Curtis Everett leads an uprising against the tyrannous security apparatus of the mysterious leader who designed, built and runs Snowpiercer: the often-referenced, but never-seen Wilford. But as Everett and his allies battle from car to car, inching toward the front of the train, they learn that finishing a revolution is a whole lot harder than starting one, and that whenever you challenge the structure of power, you tend to learn some unwelcome secrets about it along the way. With any war, casualties are inevitable, but for our heroes, certain delusions about power, justice, freedom and tyranny are bound to die particularly ugly deaths.
Snowpiercer is a Korean adaptation of a French graphic novel, and if you know anything about Korean cinema’s taste for ugly violence, and French comics’ taste for the spectacularly weird, then you know before the opening credits just how offbeat this movie is going to be. And on that front, it very much lives up to expectations, thanks in large part to outstanding cinematography, directing, and performances (particularly by Chris Evans as Everett and Tilda Swindon as the leering, frog-like Minister Mason). But the unsung hero of this thing is the setting itself. Snowpiercer the train is a grandiose social experiment housed in revolutionary technology, overseen by a complete loon who had the good fortune to build his insane project on the eve of planetary destruction. (Timing is everything, especially when the end of the world is at hand.) The train’s almost two-dimensional confines boil down the story’s themes of resource scarcity, social hierarchy and movement without progression to a most intense concentration, a kind of claustrophobia that extends beyond mere physical space and permeates the mental and emotional as well.
From the beginning, we see how such a lopsided society is destined for conflict, and with conditions as bad as they are for Everett and his fellow tailenders, one can hardly blame them for wanting to storm the length of the train to set things right. But what elevates this exercise above a room-by-room revenge bloodbath is how much our heroes learn along the way. As they enter cars they were never meant to visit and understand that their revolution it’s not as original as they’d like to believe, they and we are given a harsh lesson in how any war, no matter how clear-cut, still needs two sides to happen. Symbiotic conflict generates its own energy, and in a closed system such as Wilford’s marvelous train, endless conflict isn’t a bug. It isn’t even a feature. It’s the point.
We don’t come to understand this until later in the movie, by which time we’re neck deep in some other uncomfortable truths, chief among them that any revolution really only has one of two outcomes. The first is a complete destruction of the current way of things with no workable vision of the future The second is some kind of betrayal of principle in which the revolutionary inevitably becomes part of the problem he or she sought to overthrow. Seizing power is one thing. Wielding it is something else, and watching Everett slowly wake up to this grim reality is one of Snowpiercer’s more heartbreaking, and compelling, developments. Strange, that a story about people all moving endlessly in one direction should have so many twists and turns in it, but that’s Snowpiercer for you.
Everett’s crash course in the bloody underside of politics comes at various points in his journey toward the front of the train, but perhaps the most memorable one is also his first, during the story’s signature action sequence. After a few easy victories, Everett’s army hits a point where it can either be content with what it’s won and negotiate for terms, or decide to shoot the moon and see how far this revolt can really go. Everett is counseled to show some restraint, but he’s not having it, and promptly leads his forces into an ambush by a phalanx of Wilford’s hatchet-wielding enforcers. A savage melee ensues as the lights go out, and in such close quarters, high casualties are assured on both sides. Everett is more than ready to lose his own life, and accepts that not all of his friends will make it past this car full of slaughter. But what he doesn’t bank on is having to decide exactly whose life gets sacrificed for the cause. Everett isn’t faced with an impossible decision, just a question of how much of his soul he wants to preserve. The moment we decide we can do with less than all of it, however. is a moment of truth indeed. And a moment of awful truth, at that.