The first thought that came to me as soon as Bong Joon-ho’s mad masterpiece Snowpiercer came to an end was not about the movie I just finished watching, but of a novel from the early 1960s — Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, to be more specific. The story is a first-person account of the end of the world as we know it, thanks to an invention called ice-nine. This substance wipes out humanity, transforming the planet into a man-made ice age. A similar event sets up the story in Snowpiercer. While ice-nine was invented to fight the enemy, a missile is launched in Bong’s film to fight the climate.
Back to that thought: I imagined Bong’s pitch to producer Harvey Weinstein: “I wanna make an action sequel to Cat’s Cradle starring Captain America.”
Okay, so no one is going to confuse Snowpiercer’s screenplay with the writings of Vonnegut (see: legend), but the spirit of his work is present, wrestling in every train car along with the film’s characters. Dark humor runs deeper and deeper as the heroes face the unknown at every step. Human interaction and backstories don’t take a backseat as they so often do in this, the most gluttonous time of the year (see: Transformers). Another lesson for Hollywood, then: You don’t have to check your brain at the door before every action movie. If you check out during Snowpiercer, you’re missing half the fun and all the Swinton.
The film begins with a brief introduction regarding the aforementioned apocalypse. All survivors have boarded a train that speeds around the world, supplying the heat and nourishment needed to continue their survival. Everything sounds great but for the following caveat: the people are separated into classes. The wealthy are in the front (enjoying luxury as much as one can enjoy luxury while trapped inside a train) while the poor remain in the back. The food for the less fortunate is disgusting. Any attempts at uprising are met with swift punishment. Arms are frozen and smashed off of bodies. Old women are beaten. There is no mercy from Wilford, the leader and inventor of the train who is unseen by most. There is definitely no mercy from his human mouthpiece, and what a mouthpiece indeed.
Tilda Swinton dons a bad wig and bad teeth as Minister Mason, doling out commands to the poor as though they are children incapable of common sense. Swinton chews up every scene she’s in, relishing her role as the oblivious, pious second-in-command. Her rival in the film is Curtis, played by Chris Evans, who is more Mad Max than Captain America. Curtis is the reluctant leader of the “back of the train” rebels, who are attempting to reach the front of the train and take control of its storied engine. Curtis’ eyes shine with determination and regret as he leads his small team through the train, but there is a deep sadness and dark history behind those eyes. Stories begin to unravel as rapidly as the train speeds through the earth’s frozen lands, especially the history between a security expert and his daughter, played by Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung respectively (both reuniting with Bong from The Host).
As for the action, it’s second-to-none in 2014. Working within a tight framework of train cars packed full of people, Bong is careful to let his scenes breathe without an over-reliance on quick cuts. One standout sequence follows Curtis in slow motion during one particular brutal battle sequence, recalling the hallway scene in Park Chan-wook’s Old Boy (Park co-produced Snowpiercer), only slowed to a crawl. There is a sequence shot from the POV of a soldier wearing night goggles. Another is a trailing, overhead shot of a revolutionist running atop a battering ram. Bong took his limited work space and made it seem limitless.
Snowpiercer finds success as an action movie thanks to these scenes and others just as imaginative, but reaches a higher level thanks to its performances. In addition to Swinton, multiple Academy-Award nominees make up much of the cast. Octavia Spencer is a woman determined to find her son, who has been taken to the front for dubious reasons. John Hurt plays the weary leader of the back of the train who has a history with those in power. Another nominee makes an appearance, but it won’t be spoiled here (avoid movie posters at all costs!).
Bong could have given in to producer Harvey Weinstein, who wanted him to cut 20 minutes from the film. Weinstein’s ridiculous requests mirror Minister Mason’s demands of “Know your place! Accept your place!” to the back of the train, but like those rebels, Bong didn’t listen. With its direction, witty dialogue, introspection, and chock-full of bizarre train cars, Bong’s Snowpiercer rebels against the norms of summer blockbusters — overthrowing them all.