Review: Snowpiercer (Bong, 2013)

Still from the movie Snowpiercer

I couldn’t tell from watching the trailer if Snowpiercer was going to be pretty good or incredibly bad. It turns out that I found it pretty bad, but everyone else in the world seems to think it’s good. Go figure.

The film is a post-apocalyptic action sci-fi from Korean director Bong Joon-ho, who adapted it from the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, by Jacques Lob (writer) and Jean-Marc Rochette (illustrator). The apocalyptic event is that Earth has entered an ice age due to humanity’s interference with the climate (we released a substance into the atmosphere in order to counteract global warming). The planet is utterly uninhabitable except for in one constantly moving train that makes a complete circle of the world every 365 days and does not need fuel because of its mysterious “Sacred Engine.” It all sounds pretty silly and arbitrary to me (why a train? why does it have to keep moving? how does the Sacred Engine operate?), but, okay, we’re working off the graphic novel, so whatever, I’ll suspend my disbelief.

The train is organized in such a way that those at the head, the original first class passengers, live in lavish luxury, whereas those at the tail, who likely boarded the train in desperation without a ticket, are essentially slaves. Because of the known class imbalance and the misery of life in the back, the people at the tail have staged several revolts, the most recent of which is the subject of the movie. It is nominally led by an old one-armed, one-legged man named Gillian (John Hurt), but Curtis (Chris Evans), Gillian’s protege and a gruff Sam Worthington type, is its true heart, as everyone on the train but Curtis recognizes. Launching a revolt, of course, is not easy, and the tail people need some assistance from imprisoned Namgoong Minsoo (Song Kang-ho from Oldboy), who designed the train’s security system. His and his daughter Yona’s (Ko Ah-sung) cooperation has to be purchased with Kronol, highly flammable industrial waste produced in the tail of the train that is used by those at the front as a hallucinogenic drug.

Snowpiercer is, first and foremost, an action flick. Not one to appreciate action flicks, I had to ask my husband, who enjoyed the movie, what he liked about it. He cited the fight scenes, which he said were unique in their choreography and execution. He also explained that the film felt immersive–that is, something, perhaps the combination of visual style or framing, contributed to a visceral sense of claustrophobia in the train’s tail, and an opposite feeling of opulence as the revolt made its way to the head. I was glad he mentioned this because, when I reflected on his feedback, I decided I agreed with him: the fight scenes are unusual, and the one aspect of the film I admire is its visuals and costuming, which remind me of the sinister 1995 French surrealist film The City of Lost Children and, to a lesser extent, Scorsese‘s Hugo. Except for the rather ordinary Curtis and his sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell), the tail people are marked by grime and, often, disfigurements. They look strange and behave oddly. The scenes from the head of the train, on the other hand, are garish and disturbing in their brightness. This overstated style is pleasurable in its indulgence.

The film, though, is ultimately disappointing. You won’t fully realize it until the inevitable showdown at the end, but you’ll start getting hints earlier when the characters’ actions defy common sense (for example, why, when they are in the midst of staging a rebellion, do they have time to sit down and eat sushi?). Then, when everything finally comes to a head, much is unwound too quickly and nonsensically, the characters contradict themselves or seem at illogical cross-purposes. The finale is dramatic, sure, but also hollow, unsatisfying, not to mention a bit confusing (but already I fear I give away too much). The plot’s logic also requires a great deal of blind acceptance by the viewer. Motivations, especially by the enigmatic Wilford (Ed Harris), an Oz-like figure who built the train, cannot be taken at face value, but neither do we ever penetrate the mystery. Some critics praised the film for its ability to withhold key information to maximum effect, but the reveal often is too little too late, awkwardly timed, makes no sense, or never happens.

I hear for its genre Snowpiercer is not a bad film, but I cannot recommend it.