Snowpiercer is certainly one way to tackle the issues of class disparity and climate change — at once, no less. The film’s entire premise is based on these two ideas, and then it takes its characters and audience on a great thrill ride of a movie. It does so effortlessly and stylishly. From its opening to its conclusion — and all the action and turns scattered throughout — this is an incredibly enjoyable experience.
Here’s the premise: Sometime in the near future, the planet’s average temperature had increased to such an extent that humans finally decided to do something about it. We sprayed some sort of chemical in the air to take down the temperature, but there was a problem: it worked too well. The planet froze over. Humans and animals alike died out. The only survivors were those who boarded a train that is constantly in motion. It has been running non-stop for 17 years as Snowpiercer begins. At the tail of the car, the lower-class citizens reside. They’re cramped, eat nothing but “protein bars,” and are at the mercy of those near the front, who are the upper-class.
At the beginning of the film, a quiet murmur exists. Questions like “Is it time yet?” are asked. The lead, Curtis (Chris Evans), replies with “soon.” They are planning revolts and revolution. Past attempts have failed. They believe that they will be more successful this time. After some planning and waiting, it begins. The rest of the film follows the attempt by Curtis and co. to overthrow the system and take control of the train’s ecosystem.
To do this, he breaks out a drug-addicted security expert, Namgoong (Song Kang-ho), and his daughter, Yona (Go Ah-sung), in order to open the doors to each car. Along the way, there are many surprises they encounter. It’s almost as interesting to watch how the train functions as it is to see the revolt. How, exactly, they make these “protein bars” comes as both a shock to Curtis and to us. The entire way that the train operates is worth its own movie; putting us in the middle of a revolt is just icing on the cake.
Snowpiercer is about things. It has ideas, themes, and concepts that it wants you to think about. There is a world built within it — one that is every bit as interesting as any other post-apocalyptic setting out there. And, to top it off, it’s action-packed, filled with gorgeous cinematography, a strong score and good acting. There is something for everyone. There’s even a touch of dark humor thrown in every now and then. Note the scene in which a brutal battle is halted partway through to celebrate New Year’s.
There are spurts of extreme violence. They aren’t the focus, but they’re often a resolution to a problem. The conflict between the classes often results in violent battles. Humans are violent creatures, after all, and when the oppressed decide they no longer want to be oppressed, that often leads to them using violence as a means to achieve a goal. That is showcased here. It’s not often gory or excessive, but if you’re timid about this kind of thing, here’s your warning.
Chris Evans is subdued and serious in the lead role. He’s the protagonist, and he’s a leader, but he’s far removed from the role for which he’s most famous (Captain America, if you somehow don’t know). His second-in-command is Edgar (Jamie Bell), who got that position for reasons you find out in a powerful monologue late in the film. Their mentor is played by John Hurt. The cast is rounded out by Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, and Alison Pill.
There is a strong amount of character depth, even though there’s not a ton of development. The prime characters are singularly focused and the film doesn’t really do much beyond giving us a resolution to that goal. There isn’t a lot of time for them to grow, and with a film like this, that’s okay. We get to see different layers to them as the film progresses. And there are even some character swerves upon learning more about them. Perhaps some people are “good” even if they don’t initially seem like it — and vice versa, I suppose.
Does Snowpiercer have problems? If it does, they hardly matter and I’m struggling to come up with them. Are the CGI shots from outside the train pretty bad? Yes, but they don’t make up a combined minute of the film’s running time. Does it leave a few too many questions about how the whole train functions? Of course it does. I’m not sure how the upper-class citizens manage to eat steak every day, but then we never really find out how long the train is, either. Maybe there are enough cows being bred. It takes some suspension of disbelief, but it’s immersive and keeps your mind occupied with other things, so it’s unlikely you’ll think about its problems too hard while it plays.
Snowpiercer is a very enjoyable film. It’s thoughtful and thought-provoking, delivers both action and intellect, and it’s a great watch from start to finish. Good acting, strong characters, and interesting ideas — it really does have pretty much everything you’d be looking for. It’s not an effects-heavy film, but it also really doesn’t need to be. If you’re in the mood for smart sci-fi, you should check out Snowpiercer.