The poor are crammed into the tail. Bunk beds upon bunk beds. Odious character after odious character. Food arrives, but it’s not chicken or pork or beef, it’s a protein block that looks like cherry jelly that’s been in the sun too long. What’s the protein? You don’t want to know. Every day armed guards from the front come in to take a head count. The poor are asked to sit down one row at a time. Curtis remains upright, eyes fixed on the guards.
The rich and elite enjoy the rest of the train, carriages 1 through 49, it would seem. The train never stops on its journey around the Earth, powered reliably by the holy Engine, designed and built by an enigma called Wilford. In 2014, scientists devised a chemical called CW-7 with the intent of stopping global warming once and for all. The chemical backfired, of course, sending the planet into an ice age, leaving nothing alive except the souls on this train, practically named Snowpiercer.
It is now 17 years later. Snowpiercer is still running, shielding its passengers from the deadly cold outside, ever onward to a destination that will never arrive.
The track encircles the globe, and each year the train crosses a rickety bridge that heralds a new year. Every year it’s the same bridge, the same view, the same faceless snow and ice blanketing the world. Curtis (Chris Evans), the one who will not sit down and be counted, has decided enough’s enough. This must end. There are too many smelly, hungry people at the back of the train, and they all want a taste of the good life at the front (they hear of the wonders of steak but have never seen it). Heaven knows where they go to relieve themselves.
A coup is in order. Curtis must lead it. He calculates that the three gates leading to the next carriage all remain open for exactly 4 seconds. That’s all they have. 4 seconds to barge through the guards and into the unknown. There have been other coups, we learn, but this time Curtis plans to go all the way.
He is mentored by an elderly chap called Gilliam, who is without an arm and a leg and looks very much like John Hurt needing a shower for, well, 17 years. Edgar (Jamie Bell), a young, impish lad, idolises Curtis and assumes the role of his second-in-command. They bide their time, observing the guards, reading messages sent to them from the front, deducing that the guns the guards carry might not even be loaded. Then they spring their plan.
I’d like not to tell you how successful their plan is, but Snowpiercer is a machine working against its own secrets. I have to commend its production design by the Czech Ondrej Nekvasil, which single-handedly unveils that their plan succeeds, up to a point (if you value a movie’s secrets and your life depends on it, I suggest you stop reading now, just to be safe).
As the group of rebels progresses ever forward to the next carriage and the next, the decor grows exceedingly lavish. The tail, where the poor suffer, looks like Zion from The Matrix movies stuffed into a matchbox. A few doors down is the prison chamber, made to look cold and empty, like a morgue. This is where they free Nam (Song Kang-Ho), a Korean drug addict who designed all the locks on the train. He’s a character of convenience.
They need Nam to open more gates. Nam agrees, as long as Curtis supplies him with a drug called Kronole. Further down the train the carriages begin to lose the silver of metal and adopt warmer shades. There is a classroom that doesn’t look like Zion but like a classroom from any kindergarten.
The rooms become even more extravagant. An aquarium. A sushi bar. A hair salon. A swimming pool. A sauna complex. There are incubating chambers that grow luxury proteins like chicken and beef, and a hydroponics room that produces fresh vegetables and fruit. The further we get into the train, the more it looks like pages ripped from a Wallpaper magazine adorned with models from GQ and Vogue. Nekvasil proves in Snowpiercer that he is an artistic visionary. This is one of the best looking films of the year, particularly because it spans the entire visual spectrum of monetary wealth.
What about the plot? It is a parable, sometimes subtle, sometimes heavy handed. It warns of mankind’s greed and its obsession with class systems. Snowpiercer is an ark, carrying mankind’s last hope of survival. It must work on its own; it must be self-sufficient, like the Engine that runs it. We are told of Natural Selection, and of how the sushi bar only operates twice a year, not because it is special in any way, but because it requires six months for the fish to reproduce. It makes sense.
Does the whole movie make sense? Yes it does, in a cool South Korean dystopian kind of way. The director is Bong Joon-Ho, whose films I have not seen. Like his compatriots, Park Chan-Wook and Kim Ji-Woon (whose films I have seen), he has a fine eye for detail, cinematography and violence. Nam looks suspiciously like one of Park’s characters, a certain vengeful prisoner who stormed through crooks with a hammer. And there’s a fight scene in a sauna that works superbly because it sucks away all sentimentalism and regards its fighters as fighters, nothing more.
There’s also a denouement that catches us off guard with an unexpected actor who, after seeing him sink into the role, seems absolutely perfect, and plays the character perfectly. It is all rounded off. The closing shot doesn’t play for audience satisfaction, but then neither does the rest of the movie. And neither does any movie that comes from the dark but masterful void that is South Korean cinema.
Best Moment | Any scene with Tilda Swinton. She is spellbinding as Mason, Wilford’s voice and right-hand woman.
Worst Moment | Nope.