Snowpiercer is a sci-fi film that’s five years old, – so it is a stretch for it to be called retro, but it is already on the road to becoming a cult classic and it deserves some more recognition considering how badly the Weinsteins handled the film’s release.
In 2014 a scientific mission to counteract global warming backfires and freezes the planet. The few survivors live on a train known as The Snowpiercer that circumnavigates the globe. On the train people are split into three classes – the elite live on the front train in luxury, whilst the suppressed underclass live in the back in squalid conditions.
Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) plans to lead a revolt against the rulers of the train and believes he can succeed where others have failed by leading the revolution to the engine. The revolution is sparked off when the rulers of the train take young children from the underclass.
Snowpiercer was an international production – the producers were Korean, including legendary filmmaker Chan Park-Wook, it was directed by The Host’s Bong Jong-ho and it is the most expensive Korean film. The film was based on a French graphic novel, shot at Barrandov Studios in the Czech Republic and the majority of the cast were American and British – because an English language film is more marketable.
The Weinstein Company bought the distribution rights the US, UK and other territories like Australia and South Africa and this was where most of the controversy with the film stems from. The Weinsteins attempted to the cut the film by 20 minutes, leading to an internet storm and the Weinsteins only gave the film a limited release before dumping it on Netflix in the US. It was never even released in the UK and my own Blu-ray is an import from the Netherlands. This is a shabby treatment for sure a great film that deserved a bigger audience.
When I first saw the trailers for Snowpiercer I thought it looked like an extended Doctor Who episode with an unsubtle political message. This does not do the film justice because it is both an entertaining genre film and something much more complex – so it can be enjoyed on two levels.
Bong is a political director – The Host criticized the American military command in South Korea and his latest film Okja looked at industrial farming. Snowpiercer had an overt class hierarchy but this was a mask for how highly managed this system is. The people had been on the train for 17 years so resources were running out and as Tilda Swinton’s character says when that all resources have to be carefully allocated – like eggs and fish (one of the carriages is somehow an aquarium). For anyone who has studied Sociology at any level will be delighted at how this society functions – and there is a great twist in the final act.
The film is oddly reminiscent of the John Carpenter classic They Live – both films are entertaining genre films that also had a sociological message. There were also elements of Terry Gilliam films like Brazil and Twelve Monkeys because Snowpiercer has a barmy premise and Bong injects some surrealism and an unsettling humor – like when the rebellion is going into the classroom. John Hurt’s character is even called Gilliam which has to be more than a coincidence.
The film pleases on an action level. Bong is a director who has made films with impressive visual effects and Snowpiercer is no different. One of the most impressive sequences was when the rebels face up against the train’s soldiers – where the train lights are turned off, ready for a slaughter. The rebels counteract this by fighting with lit torches which leads to one of the most unique looking fight scenes in recent years.
The different sections of the train all have a distinct look and atmosphere. The ‘scum’ sectors are cram, dark and grimy with people stacked on top of each other and people have to eat horrible protein bars. The middle sectors are where the workers live as well as important facilities like farms and the richer people live in various degrees of luxury and hedonism.
Snowpiercer also has a terrific cast containing the likes of Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Ewen Bremer, Octavia Spencer and Song Kang-ho. Yet it was Tilda Swinton as Mistress Mason who stole the show as a vile and cruel woman who speaks with an unusual Northern English accent who enjoys causing pain but is a total coward when she faces any danger.
Snowpiercer is set to be turned into a TV series for the TNT Network with the aim being that the show could explore the politics of the train. Personally I cannot see how a TV series could improve upon a movie that got to say everything it needed to in two hours.
This is a film for anyone who calls themselves a cinephile.