A startling madcap spin on the dystopian future yarn, a rebellion sparks on a class-divided perpetual-motion train containing earth’s last survivors
There are times during Snowpiercer where it feels we have been jettisoned directly into Bong Joon-ho's own beauty and bizarre brain. That his mind may resemble some never-resting wild train ride, packed with class struggle and environmental concerns, alongside intermittent spikes of dark comedy and bloody violence.
The dystopian future has long consumed authors and filmmakers, particular in the last 100 years as we have growth increasingly suspiciously that our political irrationality and indifference to a changing planet may eventually come home to roost.
How the future differs here (and is better for doing so) is how Bong’s genre-scrambling approach to story-telling mashes together a violent action film, an off-the-wall science fiction outing, alongside dollops of black humour and slices of horror.
The social commentary is vast, chiefly on notions of class divides in society and the implications of environmental harm, but as ever with Bong, nothing feels preachy. Chiefly because he never forgets that for any message to land, it must be enclosed in paper worth unwrapping. Snowpiercer works as a visceral cinematic experience, regardless of how successful its commentary proves.
When a failed attempt to halt global warming instead descends the planet into a new ice age, humanity’s last survivors are left onboard a circumnavigating train called the Snowpiercer.
The train is run Wilford (Ed Harris), the creator of the perpetual-motion engine running the train, who oversees a train segregated by the elites living in luxury at the front and the poor living in squalid conditions at the back.
Urged on by wily elder Gilliam (John Hurt), Curtis (Chris Evans) and his sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell) lead a revolt and attempt to surge through the train. To achieve this, the rear-train rebels must get past the train’s armed guards, led by Wilford’s second-in-command Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton).
Along the way, they meet security specialist Namgoong (Song Kang-ho) and his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung), reuniting Song and Go in the father-daughter relationship they had in Bong’s The Host (2006).
As they attempt to march through the train, the group are greeted by various battles, alongside the most bizarre and obscure selection of themed carriages imaginable.
The film is attempting to do so much heavy-lifting and it could easily have got its balances wrong. Its social messages could get lost in the action, or vice-versa, the commentary on classism could be too laboured for the set-ups to work.
Fortunately, Bong is the master juggler of such concepts. Philosophy and entertainment working in tandem, never in opposition. It is assisted by a superb cast, cherry-picking the likes of Swinton, the modern auteur’s go-to star.
Snowpiercer is mad, wild, tense and action-filled, yet profound, intelligent and meaningful. It perhaps fails to stick the landing, providing a hollower finale than its wide-eyed earlier scenes, but few audience members can feel robbed of their stub price from this insane, rip-roarer of a sci-fi action flick.