“Snowpiercer” Movie Review

     Director Joon-ho Bong’s “Snowpiercer” is, perhaps, one of the best science fiction films in the past decade and far surpasses any genre film this summer.  The film’s namesake refers to a luxury train created for around the world travel and intended for the very well to do.  One revolution around the world takes exactly one year and the train is propelled by an engine that is able to operate without the need for fuel and it’s maintenance can be done while moving.  This type of travel has come in real handy for a lucky few, since the world has now gone into an ice age due to complications from global warming and humankind’s attempts to stop it with the last of the human race on board the train. Bong and his team have meticulously created a world within a world with each car of the train carefully designed to have a maximum impact on the story.  In other words, the Snowpiercer is a character in the film, seemingly a living and breathing entity in itself as it stands as the only barrier between life and death for the passengers on board.

     Based on the graphic novel “Le Transperceneige” and adapted for the screen by Bong and Kelly Masterson, the film nails all of it’s casting choices as well with several interesting and odd ball characters populating each and every aspect of the train’s population.  As Curtis, Chris Evans (Captain America) is the reluctant leader of a large group of people living in cramped quarters in the back of the train.  Essentially, Bong’s film is about class and privilege and can easily be seen as a parallel to life in America and around the world today which was no doubt his intention.  When the film begins, we are told the global warming epidemic that wiped out humanity occurred in present day (2014).  When we meet the group in the back of the train, 17 years have passed and many of the train’s passengers can’t fully remember what life was like before the ice age began.

     Curtis and several people living in the back of the train are planning to stage a revolution and make their way to the mysterious front cars of the train where they believe the rich live in luxury.  For those in the back, life is standing shoulder to shoulder, sleeping in bunks stacked from floor to ceiling, and subsisting off “protein bars” provided by those in control.  The dirt, grime, and sludge throughout these living spaces reminded me of Norman Reynolds’ production design for the prison in “Alien 3” and the occupants might as well be in a prison since they are frequently visited by Mason (Tilda Swinton) and a platoon of armed guards who are there to ensure those in the back of the train continue to know their place and follow the rules.

     Led by Curtis and one of the train’s elders, Gilliam (John Hurt), the group pull off a siege on the first several cars ahead of them with the intention of awakening a prisoner who is said to have full knowledge of the train’s engineering and security systems.  Bong shows he is fully capable of directing high level action sequences and the film is full of them from the point the story is established and Curtis leads the people from the back towards the front.  As they move along, they are confronted by a number of security personnel, which means numerous fighting scenes shot in close quarters with Bong relishing in these scenes with the inclusion of night vision as the train goes through a tunnel, and colorful characters such as an elementary school teacher going full auto while in the middle of an odd classroom lesson

     Bong could’ve easily made this film a very typical action entry, but chose instead to ensure his characters were well developed and the stakes were set before moving into the inevitable confrontations the story creates.  I keep thinking about a scene in which Curtis asks to trade two protein bars to a little boy for the one he is currently eating (He does this because of a message hidden within his bar).  As Curtis and his mother, Tanya (Octavia Spencer) attempt to convince the boy of the trade, Bong keeps his camera tight on the boy as he licks the bar top to bottom with the kind of enjoyment one would expect if it were an ice cream cone.  Only later when it’s revealed what those bars are actually made of, does a scene as simple as that become truly haunting and tragic.  These characters develop to the point where we, as the audience, care about what happens to them as they embark on what becomes an incredible ordeal.  Like our society today, the rich won’t give up what they have easily.

     As we are given glimpses of life in the front, I often wondered what keeps these well to do people from falling into a complete depression as they looked outside each day seeing major cities around the world covered in snow and ice.  Fact is, the people in the back of the train are much more interesting and all they have is each other, not knowing really what they’re missing in the front of the train and not having a view of the outside world.  In the film’s final act, we meet the train’s creator, who lives in the front car of the train.  His rhetoric was not unlike the Architect character in “The Matrix Reloaded” in that he spews a lot of philosophical beliefs about the human race and how each and every person falls into some kind of role within society, justifying in his own mind the necessary treatment of those in the back of the train versus those in the front. 

     As “Snowpiercer” reaches it’s conclusion, you will find much to mull over as you attempt to piece together everything that has just played out.  One may choose to organize their thoughts based on scenes that happen within particular cars, but regardless, this is a film you will want to talk about and likely see a few more times.  The filmmakers have done an exceptional job giving each and every character several memorable moments that fit together seamlessly within the framework of the story, combining smart and timely dialogue with several comedic moments which ensure the people we see on screen are indeed human, an attribute which is not seen often. “Snowpiercer” is a film which deserves mention alongside the best science fiction films of the last decade including “Inception”, “Avatar”, “District 9”, and “Gravity”, solid company indeed.  GRADE: A