Snowpiercer is a misleading title. Like a lot of aspects of this film, it is both punchy and mysteriously evocative, but the imagery on either side of the story shows snow as flecks of light in darkness. It suggests that snow is the transitory state between life and death. This leads one to consider the title not in terms of a badass name for a train carrying the last of humanity, but as a simile of “life finding a way” (yes, I’m referencing Goldblum’s Jurrasic Park character — don’t judge me!), whether people are part of that resurgence or not. One of the things this film does especially well is to show how death is relative. It shows how survival isn’t a human aspiration; it’s just something we do or don’t do. The earth is then rendered the true hero. Put into dire situations, people will do all kinds of heroic and cowardly things. But one of their kind is usually the cause of those situations. Rather than showing people banding together to save humanity, Snowpiercer is a brutal exercise in the human tendency to perpetuate its own degradation and loss. As far as we know, there is nothing to our planet but a seemingly endless drive to continue. It is bigger and stronger than anything living on it, and we continue to take it for granted (or perhaps try to out-engineer it, as the more ambitious are wont to do) while we fight amongst ourselves.
Not that director Bong Joon-ho and co. have written some kind of environmentalist message movie. It’s just clever enough to bear in mind how much we love to watch each other fight. It’s an ever-popular movie tradition, and Joon-ho’s film is more than happy to take part. Most likely due to having less than half the budget, a character’s dramatic slow-mo emergence at the end doesn’t resonate as powerfully as Sandra Bullock’s dramatic slow-mo emergence in Gravity. Yet it’s Snowpiercer that resonates more potently when it’s over. One finds themselves reckoning with how base and unnatural human behavior is on the train when set against the vast beauty and grace of the planet it’s zooming around on. It’s a humane film, full of the sorts of good, evil, and in between we are accustomed to in our narratives, but it doesn’t let our pre-ordained sympathies dictate the story. Therefore, we’re left with a film that is as fun as it is harsh. At times, it may feel haphazard, but perhaps some of this is intentional. The train reality facing these characters is full of indulgence and propaganda and depravity and camaraderie, even brief moments of comic levity, but they are only going in circles while the world outside struggles to make itself livable again. The film could never be all that condemning of humanity, since it deigns to spend the majority of its runtime in the train with them.
It’s curious, as a would-be blockbuster, that what comes through most is a sense of sad absurdity. As when former electrician/current drug addict Namgoong Minsoo (an amusingly deadpan Song Kang-ho) reveals that he has the last two cigarettes in existence, everyone licks their lips. In a way, it’s a typical movie tribute to devil-may-care self-destruction. In another, it’s a potent symbol of how everyone is reliably complicit in humankind’s demise. The impoverished in the back of the train may be who we are rooting for as they make their way up. But beyond rescuing two children who’ve been abducted by the authorities at the head of the train, it’s unclear what their ultimate objective is. One could say that their uprising only succeeds in turning their classist-moving habitrail into a meat grinder. There is a lot of questions that go unanswered about the train’s inventor, conductor, and vainglorious tyrant Wilford (Ed Harris), and I suspect this is largely due to making room for the absurdly consistent violence. You get a big speech toward the end about “everyone having their place” and boilerplate stuff about how much he admires rear-compartment rebellion leader Curtis (a sour, bearded Chris Evans), but it all goes out the window with his last line in the film. He winds up coming across as a privileged megalomaniac, rather than an evil mastermind, who never got out enough while earth was still inhabitable.
Turgid with pathos (after awhile, the violence ceases to be enjoyable) as Snowpiercer is, it has a lot of fantastic idiosyncracies that make it fly by. Tilda Swinton delivers the most here as Wilford’s matronly stooge, Mason. Beyond the cartoonish oddity of her appearance, the character’s mix of glibness and meticulous courtesy gives Swinton many opportunities to show off her dry comic chops. She’s so on point as to make Evans and particularly Jamie Bell’s (as Curtis’ sidekick, Edgar) comparatively rote performances stand out a bit. Bell’s lukewarm spiel wouldn’t have been out of place in the 90s post-Mad Max sci-fi cheesefest No Escape. All of his lines are delivered as though he’s just in another rock-‘em-sock-‘em sci-fi with mild philosophical undertones. Important as the character is to Curtis, he doesn’t register as much more than a lamely quipping sidekick. Although she seems underwritten, Octavia Spencer is fantastic as the ass-kicking mom, Tanya, who in a brilliant little turn, nonchalantly cracks her hard-boiled egg on a posh front-of-train toddler’s noggin. And while it’s always a joy to see Ewen “Spud” Bremner, he doesn’t get to do much here but get maimed in a gruesome fashion and yell a lot. Some additional time spent with character development might’ve saved the film from some of its moments of genre-fied hokum (that said, I couldn’t help but feel wistful twinge about the re-emergence of the paunchy-middle-aged-but-somehow-unkillable-head-henchman trope embodied by the Kevin Tighe-like Vlad Ivanof).
As 2001: A Space Odyssey illustrated some 50 years ago, sci-fi has the potential to really blow minds if it isn’t restrained by convention and marketing concerns. While it’s nowhere near that high-water mark, one gets the sense that Snowpiercer could’ve been a lot bigger and better. This disheartening cycle of the film industry’s self-cannibalizing and bet-hedging is killing the sort of creativity that allows for massive genre accomplishments anywhere near Kubrick’s. The talent and originality is definitely out there, but — once given a chance — their works are rendered even greater commercial failures than the return that a slow-build, word-of-mouth following a product of assured, uncompromised vision could show. That being said, even if it gets in its own way a bit, people should go out to see Snowpiercer anyway. It looks great for the most part, and it’s a gripping mix of drama, gallows humor, and gritty mayhem. As every Tarantino film since Kill Bill has shown, sometimes a messy pile of ideas in a genre film is more fulfilling than something more tightly contained (recent sci-fi stunner Under The Skin being a massive exception). In other words, it’s popcorn and soda fare, but it’s considerably more uncanny and surprising than its relatively staid, cogent multiplex-neighbors. You can ride this train even as you’re grappling with its need to exist and still manage to arrive somewhere strangely satisfying. In this light, Joon-ho Bong has shown an impressively subversive flexibility with his already well-proven acumen as a filmmaker. If this isn’t his best film, it’s certainly the most exciting in terms of promise.