In a future where a failed climate-change experiment has killed all life except for the lucky few who boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe, a new class system emerges.
You can’t get more uber-Lockdown than Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho’s electrifying, horrifying and witty 2013 thriller about an uprising on board a luxury train, rattling round a nearly-dead planet. Stay in and suffer while the rich get richer, or leave and face death.
Snowpiercer is the name of the train itself, a feat of extraordinary engineering and selfishness that is powered by its mysterious perpetual motion engine – the life’s work of a reclusive billionaire, Wilford (Ed Harris).
This is a study of society and class wrapped up in a sci-fi action movie, though these days we could see tied into that a plea to be brave and step outside once we can; that time hasn’t stood still but if we don’t venture anywhere it might as well for us. (Though before our shackles are loosened we can now watch Snowpiercer on physical media at home – it’s now out on DVD and Blu-ray for the first time in the UK.)
Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, the world Bong creates is a mixture of the outlandish and the resonant. His terrifying premise is easy to believe in, and not just because we can now watch it in the shadow of a pandemic that has shut us away, in a world where the scariest fiction starts to look like documentary.
We are in 2031, 17 years after an international experiment to end global warming led to a new ice age. The only survivors live on-board, the polarising class system keeping some in squalor at the back of the train, fed black jelly protein blocks, the older ones dreaming of steaks they once ate. Small children are measured and removed, dissent is punished instantly and viciously. Upfront the elite live in pure luxury.
At the gloomy, grimy back of the train, Tanya (Octavia Spencer) is beaten as she tries to stop her small son Timmy being taken away by Wilford’s assistant. Uprisings have taken place before, marking their years in captivity like bank holidays or holy days. The tension is unbearable as Curtis (Chris Evans), egged on by his bullish 17 year old surrogate son Edgar (Jamie Bell), decides if now is the moment to fight back.
Curtis is a reluctant leader, but determined to force one final push, and increasingly desperate to atone for his secret past; Edgar has only known life on the train (Bell’s performance is touching though his accent veers from his native North East to the Irish of his character). Gilliam (John Hurt), the group’s overall leader, encourages them. His missing limbs also mark their onboard history.
Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), stomping in to berate and punish, is Maggie Thatcher in Deirdre Barlow glasses: an incongruous representative for Wilford in her frumpy suits and hideous teeth. She’s hilariously ridiculous – Swinton is expert at treading that fine line between terrifying absurdity and buffoonery. Her performance reinforces how bizarre our class system is, and who it occasionally admits; and how often those leaders, once in power, divert their enmity from the privileged who laughed at them to the underprivileged they now rule over.
She lectures them on knowing their pre-ordained place, on how it is their responsibility to be the shoe not the head. “I am hat, you are shoe!” she yells as if to a bunch of teens pushing ahead of her in the Waitrose queue. Andrew (Ewen Bremner), the person who threw the shoe, is kneeling on the floor, his arm secured through a porthole as punishment, where it will freeze solid in the icy air in seven minutes.
She tries to position Wilford and his engine as some kind of religious experience: “the engine is sacred and Wilford is divine!” and some of the black humour comes from the ludicrousness of that proposition. Curtis knows that if “we control the engine, we control the world” but it’s purely threat that is keeping them in their place, not belief in a cult.
It’s when they realise that the guards’ guns hold don’t have any bullets – all used up on a previous revolt – that Curtis and Edgar seize their chance. They release Snowpiercer’s insouciant security expert Namgoong (Song Kang-ho) and his 17 year old clairvoyant daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung) from the train prison, and fight their way up the train to Mason, taking her hostage.
The action is frenzied and often claustrophobic. Moving towards the front from squalor through industry to luxury, Snowpiercer is episodic, but in a good way. It’s like a computer game, with Namgoong getting them through the doors into each subsequent carriage, paid in the train drug Kronole as he goes. Each carriage presents new dangers and temptations: axe men, sudden darkness, an orangery, a gilded salon for afternoon tea, a rave for the affluent “train babies” born onboard.
There’s a brightly-coloured schoolroom, where Alison Pill’s 1950s throwback teacher indoctrinates elite children then ushers them to the window as the train does its annual drive-by of what now passes for a landmark in this apocalyptic world: the figures of seven people who once tried to escape, and survived a few minutes before being frozen solid, bent against the elements. At the head is an Inuit woman, presumably Yona’s mother, who once taught Namgoong about every kind of snow.
Amid the screaming and fighting, I loved a scene with Curtis and Namgoong swapping stories: Curtis’s about the past, Namgoong’s about a possible future.
Snowpiercer is a tremendous, bold and hugely entertaining takedown of our current societies and the way they maintain themselves. I hesitate to call it an allegory of class struggle as it literally is class struggle, highlighting the wastefulness of human life and talent and the hugely unbalanced nature of the battle. Those at the back of the train are always walking into the unknown.
Harking back to the best sci-fi – when we’re in the industrial gloom of the back of the train, preparing for revolution, the sets and score reminded me very much of Alien – it also feels like a breath of fresh air.
Bong also sets out both the seductiveness of being invited into an elite, and that you’ll rarely truly belong as you move “up” a society created for other people. The denouement shows that trying to succeed in a system that despises you is the wrong approach: tear it all down and start with a fresh, pristine canvas.
Towards the end, it loses momentum, though that’s an occupational hazard in this kind of film. What we find when we peek behind the curtain is always more mundanely evil than the monsters we conjure up en route.
The characters feel very real; even Mason is as plausible as she is risible, because we’re used to risible, lecturing hypocrites rising to the top.
Evans makes an excellent and cliché-free tortured leader (I’m not sure he’s a hero); his feelings of guilt meaning he’s not as alert to betrayal as he should be. Despite their close proximity in their living quarters there are many secrets hiding beneath the rags, and a sense that people are cooperating simply because it is the best survival strategy.
Snowpiercer raises lots of questions, not least about their world – we don’t actually find out much about it (where are the economy class passengers, or are they – like most of us – irrelevant?). And if you think too hard its inconsistencies become obvious. What’s more uncomfortable though is its piercing accuracy.
Lionsgate presents Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer available for the first time on UK Blu-ray™ and DVD 25 May 2020
Watch the Snowpiercer trailer or scroll down for more – with spoilers as I want to talk about the ending…
The film finishes on a note that I think is hopeful, though some see it as delaying the inevitable (and with an extra predator thrown into the mix).
Curtis, Namgoong and Yona make it to Wilford’s high tech lair in the engine room. But in more evidence that their world is crumbling, with no spare parts available now, children from the tail end are working parts of the engine, crouched under the floor – including Timmy, Tanya’s little boy.
Wilford tells Curtis that Gilliam has always betrayed him, working with Wilford to encourage uprisings resulting in a cull of the tail-end population. Wilford tempts Curtis with the chance of becoming leader of the train.
Curtis loses his arm in the machinery while rescuing the children – which links into both the elite’s idea of destiny and life being preordained, and a feeling that we have come full circle. Curtis already has scars on one arm from the early days on the train, when the starving group (including Curtis) turned to eating children. Eventually Gilliam had offered his own limbs instead, leading to a mass change of heart with adults cutting off their arms and legs as food for others. Curtis had tried but been unable to cut off his own. Now it’s gone, from rescuing a child, and his life’s journey is complete.
(By the way, early in the film Edgar claims to remember eating steak in the past but not what it tastes or smells like. I wonder if this isn’t a continuity error – Edgar was born on board so can’t be reminiscing about pre-train days – but actually he’s remembering being fed human flesh to stay alive when he was very small. We don’t know how old he was when his mother was killed trying to protect him from the cannibals. Baby can mean toddler or newborn, after all.)
Namgoong blows the outside door using the Kronole – he’s been collecting it because it’s also an explosive. The explosion causes an avalanche and the train derails. Yona and Timmy survive (and possibly more, though if we see them as the only survivors, then no white person is left alive). Trudging outside into the snow in their big furs they see a sleek and well-fed polar bear. It’s more than just a thaw (Namgoong has mentioned earlier that temperatures are rising outside); there’s a food chain, and life has clearly continued.
The survivors may have been born on the train but Yona’s mother was Inuit, and her father will have taught her what he learnt from her mother about surviving in those conditions, so yes I’m going for the positive spin that they build a new and fair society!