Snowpiercer has endured a long journey to American theaters. Distribution rights for the English-language debut from director Bong Joon-ho were acquired by Harvey Weinstein, who vowed to cut 20 minutes from the film to make it more palatable to North American audiences. Precisely, he wanted to ensure the adaptation of a French graphic novel (Le Transperceneige) by a Korean director would be “understood by audiences in Iowa and Oklahoma.” Thankfully, after a protracted battle, the original cut is getting a limited U.S. release. And this native Iowan appreciated each of the 126 minutes.
After a frenzied attempt to reverse global warming, the Earth has frozen over. Survivors traverse the globe aboard the Snowpiercer, a continually moving train conceived by wealthy despot Mr. Wilford. While the metal ark protects its inhabitants from the harsh cold, it is not impervious to capitalist classism. The rumbling microcosm affords no gray area when it comes to structural inequality – the haves ride up front, the have-nots in the back, separated by gates and guards that clearly demark a separation of powers. The huddled masses in the rear are fed protein blocks – dire-looking gelatinous bricks of sustenance – one of the many forms of subjugation exercised by the ruling elite. The poor whisper plans for revolution, with wise old sage Gilliam (John Hurt) imparting wisdom upon the weary Curtis (Chris Evans). Soon, Curtis, his faithful sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell), and security expert Namgoong (frequent Bong collaborator Song Kang-ho) are leading a march to the front of the train and perceived equality.
The metaphor here isn’t particularly deep, but it works on several different levels in its execution. Bong uses the confined space of each train car to convey concepts that are straightforward, but effective in their drama and exhilarating in their action. It’s surely no coincidence that Hurt’s character is named Gilliam, with the dank, impoverished sections of the Snowpiercer resembling the retro-future of a Terry Gilliam dystopia. As the revolutionaries plow forward, more colors creep in, from a green garden to a vibrant techno dance party. It’s as if we’re taking a trip through different genre iterations of fantastical sci-fi society. I guess it was deemed too ostentatious to use the name Wachowski instead of Wilford for the mysterious overlord.
One standout set piece is a darkened compartment where Curtis’s crew is held off by axe-wielding guards equipped with night vision goggles. The primitive insurgents use torches to overcome their initial disadvantage. Juxtaposed against the gritty battle is a colorful schoolhouse (school train car?), where a Stepford Wives-ish teacher (Alison Pill) uses visual aids and catchy, propaganda-laced sayings to indoctrinate the impressionable youth in her charge. Bong and co-writer Kelly Masterson slyly use the brainwashing to provide us with some exposition.
Though always present, the allegory and the calculated absurdity in which it’s presented never overshadow the characters and their journey. Evans plays the likeliest of heroes in Captain America, and is just as convincing here as a desperate, troubled leader. A monologue late in the film could’ve come off as perfunctory gap-filling, but his delivery helps inform the narrative rather than simply providing backstory. Tilda Swinton is fantastic as Mason, Mr. Wilford’s mouthpiece. Conjuring the nerdiest version of Margaret Thatcher you can imagine, she constantly preaches the need to “keep order,” which for Mason means flipping allegiances whenever it’s advantageous. Swinton’s mannerisms and tone suggest someone who‘s half-annoyed and half-afraid, proud of her privileged position and quietly terrified that it would ever be threatened. She’s a personification of the inherent flaws in the system.
Snowpiercer combines the social satire of Bong Joon-ho’s creature feature The Host with the grim realism of his Memories of Murder in ways that are as bold as they are entertaining. Equal parts thought-provoking and escapist entertainment, the film weathers abrupt tonal and stylistic shifts as more is revealed about this society that is, literally and figuratively, moving in circles. Despite (and because of) various micro-cultures, everyone is but a cog in service of the big machine. I’m just glad the ride wasn’t dumbed-down for us simpletons at the back of the train.