For director Bong Joon-ho, the future looks bleak. Based on the French graphic novel, “Le Transperceneige,” Snowpiercer takes audiences a mere twenty-six years into the future when an attempt to stop global warming leaves the world frozen and uninhabitable. The only humans left alive now exist on a self-sustaining train that endlessly circles the earth making their new home feel more like prison than salvation. For those segregated to the back of the train, life is a constant struggle where every meal (and moment) is regulated by a select few lucky enough to have boarded at the front.
The Snowpiercer is ruled by it’s omnipresent inventor, Wilford, and his unflinching rules are upheld by Mason (Tilda Swinton) who is equal parts comical and terrifying. Trying to survive under this constant oppression, it is not long before those in the back of the train decide it is time to overthrow their self-appointed rulers. This rag-tag army, as led by the surly Curtis (Chris Evans), band together to push their way to the front and try to figure out why they are being treated like second-class citizens.
Bong and cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong create a fully realized, post-apocalyptic world populated by compelling characters living in both the front and the back of the train. The fast camera movements keep the group’s journey ever moving forward while the constantly changing cars work as a visual treat ranging from the gritty, morgue-like prison car to the fantastical spaces created for those riding in first class. While the highly stylized set pieces are certainly eye catching, they start to feel disjointed and nonsensical when they do little to add to the overall story. It is clear those in the back of the train got the short end of the stick, but their plight starts to lose it’s weight when those in the front are also living in a fabricated world (albeit one much more comfortable than theirs). Snowpiercer starts to falter when it never explains how these groups were divided upon boarding, making the stark divide between them feel slightly hollow.
As the group moves from car to car, the film starts to feel like a video game where heroes move from one level to next and face different “bosses” that must be defeated before they are able to move on. When those from the back are forced to engage with their opponents in violent altercations, it’s like a beautiful dance in a confined space. It’s in these moments when Snowpiercer truly succeeds and fires on all cylinders.
Evans works as the disgruntled leader (with a chip on his shoulder so large it almost physically weighs him down), but his constant denial that he is not a leader begins to ring true when he never delivers the charisma needed to rally people behind him. This inability to truly engage makes “his” army feel more like blind followers instead of dedicated allies. Evans has proven he has the ability to lead a film (see: Captain America), but his turn in Snowpiercer comes across as distraught rather than motivated. Much is said about Curtis’ loyalty to his people, but aside from a look of anguish when he watches those around him fall, it is clear his true drive is getting himself to the front of the train and face-to-face with Oz-like Wilford.
Snowpiercer takes on some big topics, but as the passenger’s true motivations are revealed, the story only seems to get more muddled. The train’s vibrant passengers are given just enough backstory to keep you wanting more, and their interactions with one another deliver some of the film’s best scenes, but as the train races forward (and the film races toward its climax), the number of action pieces layered on top of each other become distracting instead of momentous.
The Upside: An interesting commentary on class, humanity, and the future as told through captivating visuals, brutal fight sequences driven by beautiful choreography, and a hilariously scary turn by Swinton
The Downside: Overly ambitious narrative tries to do too much and starts to lose its focus (and footing) in the third act while Evans falters as the anti-hero
On the Side: Snowpiercer marks Bong’s first English-language film.