The Train of Life
Snowpiercer is a long, bullet-like train cruising at high speeds on one track around the globe and also a giant metallic metaphor. In 2031 the entire earth is near frozen thanks to our current crisis of Global Warming. What’s left of humanity has been crammed onto a never stopping locomotive, a Noah’s ark of people in a dystopic white planet. And like society’s rigid class systems, the train breeds a distinctive hierarchy. It’s not difficult to determine who starves in the caboose.
The first English-speaking film directed by South Korean Bong Joon-ho, Snowpiercer’s near freezing temperatures and filthy compartments are a breath of fresh blockbuster air. Why aren’t there more summer movies with the depth and entertainment this so deftly balanced? They probably don’t have Bong’s imaginative visions, or stories with something to actually say. Blockbusters haven’t been so bad this year, but most of them, with the exception of Edge of Tomorrow, have little on their minds. Blowing things to smithereens is usually an entitlement, utilizing a check made out by the studio. Here, it’s part of a mission.
The key to Snowpiercer is its intimacy on a grand scale. Bizarre authorities, notably played by Tilda Swinton, dressed in a Wes Anderson horror costume, enforce the train’s totalitarian system. She waxes allegory to the dungeonous group she calls the “tail” and the “foot” before heading back to the shiny, aluminum front of the engine. Is she addressing the 99%? We don’t know the exact numerical figures of the elite, but the blunt analogy is ripe for that kind of interpretation.
The dingy quarters of the train are treated like the excrement they’re anatomically meant to portray. Their food is a protein sludge bar and how this train was built, these people were herded, or the unfortunate children were born is never really indicated. But for all 18 years circling the globe, the same revolutionary sentiment has run inherent in the proletariat’s cage. Past revolts have failed. Their wise old leader played by John Hurt can attest. But this one will be different.
That’s because Chris Evans is in charge, growing a beard and donning a wool cap over his defined Captain America mug. They aim to storm the front and seize the engine, manned by a divinely mentioned creator named Wilford. The opportunity arises and the police brutality and child snatching inflicted daily fuels the attack. Octavia Spencer as a feverish mother lets out her violent nature. The revolt picks up Nam (Kang-ho Song) and his daughter, the experts behind each car’s electronically engineered gates. They help in exchange for a strange hallucinogen that they smell religiously.
Bong has to be inventive with his cornered camerawork. Numerous fight scenes take shape, each with their own pleasures and distinctive technique. Some fighters shed blood from clubs and knives while others fall prey to automatic weaponry. One scene seems to share Park Chan Wook’s (the film’s producer) famous single-take action sequence in Oldboy. This time it’s Evans in slow motion, slicing his way through darkness between ninjas. All of this happens in the width of ten feet.
It’s only occasionally we get a glimpse at Mother Nature’s icy destruction. Once the rebellion makes its way further up the train, windows become more abundant. Soon they cross a threshold. A gate opens to a greenhouse lavishly decorated by greens beneath orchestral music. Next comes a nearly 360 degree aquarium, complete with a sushi bar. This is no longer a train but an incomprehensible and confined luxury spa.
There are more illustrious and perverse train cars that await them, each getting a unique scene that evokes Quentin Tarantino and Nicolas Winding Refn. For the first time the bloodied and belittled group is out of place, both culturally and aesthetically. Their weapons of torture make violent playgrounds out of picture book dioramas. These provide comical moments. The dirtied angered faces momentarily cease their fury. Is that an octopus? Is this a hairdresser? Their enemies temporarily seem like hospitality hosts.
But the facades come down quickly and fiercely. In the process of this thinned out attack, the mission’s ultimate goal comes into question. What happens when they get to the engine and meet Wilford (Ed Harris)? Evans hasn’t thought that far because no one’s ever made it that far. Bong then offers a denouement that seems to fulfill the season’s annual bucket list of goals. Though quickly you find that’s not precisely the case. For every expository and stock sequence, he returns it with something more visually powerful and magnetic. It’s a welcome ratio, and one summer rarely receives.