At first glance, Snowpiercer's premise sounds kind of bizarre. There's been an Ice Age, and the last surviving humans gather on a huge train that drives around in circles. And there's class struggle among the passengers. And yes, the resulting film is absurd. In the absolute best way. Spoilers ahead...
Most dystopian futures are kind of absurd, to be honest. But the best absurd dystopias are the ones which A) reveal something about the world we live in today and B) set up a great story about real people in an impossible situation. And judged by those yardsticks, Snowpiercer is a great dystopia.
Plus Snowpiercer is a beautifully shot, painterly movie in which director Bong Joon-ho (The Host) creates an elaborate movie-length chiaroscuro out of dirt and snow. It's got some of the most brutal and gory fight scenes I've seen in ages, which still look kind of lovely. And it features Tilda Swinton, John Hurt and Chris Evans giving some of their best ever performances. These things add up to make it a must-see, in my book.
Some more detail about the storyline: in the near future, we come up with a way to stop global warming by spraying stuff into the air — but it goes too far and we get a frozen Earth, too cold to support human life, instead. Luckily a train-crazy genius named Wilford has created a massive train that circles the globe and has enough raw power to keep pushing through the snow and ice.
The front of the train has all the luxury cars, where the rich people went, and they live in style, with nice food and parties and stuff. The rear of the train is basically steerage, where the poor people are crammed into cargo holds and eat revolting "protein bars." Evans plays Curtis, one guy who dreams of mounting a revolution and taking over the front of the train, with the help of Hurt's character, Gilliam.
Snowpiercer is based on an acclaimed French comic — but Bong and his co-writers have basically taken nothing from the source material other than the basic concept.
This movie's depiction of class struggle is one of the most heavy-handed things I've ever seen. The poor people on the train aren't just downtrodden — they're abused and exploited in the most hideous and over-the-top ways. When the rich people need a violinist to play for their kids, they basically kidnap one from the tail section and beat up his wife when he tries to get her released as well. In one early horrible scene, Tilda Swinton's character delivers a long speech about social order while inflicting an injury that Game of Thrones would be proud of on a random poor person.
In fact, the incredibly overblown depiction of class struggle becomes almost satirical, but meanwhile Swinton turns in such a cringingly believable portrait of a sadistic functionary that you can't help feel sorry for her when the tables get turned. Swinton's character is both wildly exaggerated and instantly recognizable as a real person, and she injects a vulnerability into her performance that is both hilarious and incredibly sad. You want to hate her, but you can't, and that pretty much saves this movie from feeling like a polemic.
And meanwhile, this movie is so rich in layers of metaphor, you may find yourself spending hours pulling them apart afterwards. The train is a form of transportation that goes nowhere. It's the world, but it's also a prison. It's a calendar, because it takes exactly a year to travel around the world. It's a machine, and it's also a character in the film. And it's a snake eating its own tail, illustrating how everything goes in circles.
And in the midst of all the film's brutal violence, there are moments of weirdness and beauty that make it much harder to pull a simple message out of the class-struggle storyline. Everybody pauses in the middle of killing each other to wish each other a happy new year. The fascist thugs pause to slaughter a giant fish in front of the rebels. Later, the rebels visit a beautiful indoor aquarium and eat sushi.
Fans of gonzo art movies, from Tokyo Gore Police to Brazil, will find the strange imagery and subversive weirdness endlessly fascinating. But people who go into this film expecting "Hunger Games on wheels" will also be pleasantly (and disturbingly) surprised by the weirdness and insanity.
And without going into heavy spoiler territory, by the end of the movie the "class struggle" metaphor has gotten a couple of huge complications that derail (so to speak) the notion that this is a simple story about poor people taking their share of the pie. Even at the start of the movie, you sense that it's futile for the last few survivors of humanity to kill each other over who gets to be closer to the front of a train that none of them can escape. At no point does this film's messaging ever become subtle, but it does get a lot less clear-cut by the end.
And as Curtis and his freedom fighters move from the rear of the train to the front, the movie slowly moves from dark to light. The back of the train is dark and dirty, and there are no windows. Bong slowly opens out more views of the blinding white landscape outside, as they get out of the cargo holds, and meanwhile the nicer cars are brighter and brighter. By the end, Curtis is in a white interior looking at a white exterior.
And meanwhile, Bong creates stylized scenes of violence and anguish that feel like moving tableaux, with every piece carefully placed. He doesn't use slow-motion or CG, just beautiful light placement and Chris Evans' scowl, to create shots that feel almost like comic-book panels in their own right. Robert Rodriguez and Zack Snyder would kill to create action that looks this much like a brilliant graphic novel.
As dystopias go, Snowpiercer travels to some realy fascinating territory in examining our real-life short-sightedness. And in Curtis' journey from darkness to light, Bong creates a memorable character study as well as a great human story of confronting unthinkable, claustrophobic oppression. So this movie more than accomplishes the goals of a great dystopia.
If you like your action movies beautiful, insane and a little haunting, then Snowpiercer is definitely one of the year's most essential films.