DIRECTOR: Bong Joon-ho LEAD CAST: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, Song Kang-ho, Go Ah-sung, Jamie Bell, Alison Pill, John Hurt, SCREENWRITER: Bong Joon-ho, Kelly Masterson PRODUCER: Park Chan-wook, Lee Tae-hun, Park Tae-jun, Dooho Choi, Robert Bernacchi, David Minkowski, Matthew Stillman EDITOR: Steve M Choe MUSICAL DIRECTOR: Marcon Beltrami CINEMATOGRAPHER: Hong Kyung-pyo DISTRIBUTOR: The Weinstein Company, CJ Entertainment LOCATION: Prague, Czech Republic, South Korea, US, France GENRE: Action/Drama/Science Fiction RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes
Technical assessment: 4
Moral assessment: 2.5
MTRCB rating: R16
CINEMA Rating: V18
Global warming has reached its peak and the earth’s days are numbered. In July 2014 nations opt for a drastic solution: to use CW7, a chemical substance once sprayed into the atmosphere will halt global warming. The temperature falls but the consequences are disastrous. A real ice age exterminates all the inhabitants of the earth, burying the world in a tomb of ice and snow. It is now 2031 and the only surviving remnant of humanity is represented by the passengers of the Snowpiercer, a high-speed train that has been running around the world for 17 years, powered by a revolutionary and unstoppable energy that provides perpetual motion. The train is a microcosm of human society and is divided into classes. The poor are relegated by force in the last carriages, malnourished and abandoned, while the rich stay in the front cars, and live in luxury and comfort. To keep this balance is extremely delicate and unrest is brewing from the tail end. The movement is led by Gilliam (John Hurt), a former Wilford engineer, and his young right hand, Curtis (Chris Evans). Helping them are Tanya (Octavia Butler), whose son was forcibly taken away to the front car, Edgar (Jamie Bell), Curtis’ best friend, and Namgoong Minsun (Song Kang-ho) security expert who designed the locks on the train. Curtis plans to storm his way to the front car where the elusive Wilford (Ed Harris), inventor and holder of the power train, resides.
Every once in a while a film comes along that not only entertains but also makes us think. Not of pedestrian problems and the miseries of life, but about deep existential questions. Through imagery, sound and silence, darkness and light, dialogue and characters who linger in your mind long after the last credits roll, Snowpiercer, based on the French comic Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, effortlessly does that. Unlike Marvel comic hero films which rely on extensive CGIs and interminable violent action sequences, Korean director Bong Joon-ho gives us a work of art by combining imaginative cinematography, compelling production design (the various coaches on the train are exceptional—from the dingy slums of the tail end to the luxurious carriages up front), evocative music, engaging story, and unpredictable plot, topped by vivid characters portrayed excellently by the cast particularly Evans and Swinton (playing Mason). Even Korean actors Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-seong issue their roles effectively in their native tongue. Although Snowpiercer is longer than most action films at 125 minutes, there are very few unnecessary frames. Instead of background storytelling, little details are shown to reveal the characters’ identity and their nuanced portrayal pulls the viewer up or down with the film’s changing mood.
Snowpiercer is an allegory for social classes and class warfare, a suffocating tale of human misery, perseverance and hope. We see just how twisted humanity becomes in the name of survival, power and control. The conditions at the tail end are hellish. Over and over, tail-enders are bombarded with know-your-place speeches from Mason, Wilford’s second in command, fed with gelatinous protein blocks, separated from their children and viciously punished for any attempt at insurrection. While residents at the top feast on sushi, medium rare steaks, and fresh produce, cool down in the pool or pretty up for a party at their favorite salon, their indifference as cold as the ice surrounding them.
This is a good movie for discussion on the tendency of human nature to create social stratification and man’s love affair with the machine. The eternal train is seen as sacred and sustains life, and Wilford, the creator God. Social order is predetermined and his religion, to which the young are indoctrinated, is the excuse for control and the elite’s exploitation of the poor and the weak.
Rich in metaphors, the film also leads us to ask: What is life? What are we doing to planet earth? What sacrifices are necessary for the maintenance of the established order? Is survival the supreme good? Can I be inhuman to preserve humanity? Can we accept and live with the cost of survival no matter how big it is? What ennobles humanity and what reduces him to a beast?
Ultimately, it is always a choice—something each person has to struggle with while weighing the price of each choice. Will I sacrifice others in order to maintain my lifestyle, or do I sacrifice myself (offer an arm or a limb as food; lead my people to an insecure freedom; fight for truth and justice even if it means death; etc.) so that the others may live? Snowpiercer invites us to see how everyone is a passenger towards eternity and to examine the complex consequences our choices create.