Snowpiercer (2013) Review

Infamously the best film that hasn’t had a proper worldwide release yet, Bong Joon-ho’s English language debut “Snowpiercer” has been a hit in his native South Korea and France and is well worth seeking out as and when it gets released wherever you are.

Adapted from a French graphic novel, “Snowpiercer” is set in the not too distant future after an ambitious geo-engineering attempt to curb the effects of climate change goes disastrously wrong. It tells the story of the remnants of humanity who now survive on a vast train powered by a perpetual motion engine which continuously travels the frozen and barren surface of the Earth.

Although the concept of a train as the last cradle of humanity wobbles a bit when subjected to scrutiny, you’re best just to let it slide because it’s merely a device in which to stage a darkly compelling, bleakly allegorical tale of the nature of society, class and the state and there’s even a nod to modern-day conspiracy theories such as chemtrails in the opening few minutes. Necessarily claustrophobic, the sets and production design are absolutely stunning and the imaginative premise is well realised through creative use of the camera, lighting and design elements. While it works well as a dystopian action thriller, it’s a much more complex and layered film than it may appear at first glance. There are moments of comedy (both light and pitch black), subversion, searing social commentary and shocking violence and although the film isn’t afraid to wear its bleak, nihilistic heart on its sleeve, it does so without alienating or disengaging the viewer. Most welcome of all, it credits its audience with intelligence and allows you to discover the many truths of the train along with the ragtag band of rebels intent on making the trek from the tail to the head of the locomotive. Thankfully, the Weinstein’s desire to butcher the film down to a shorter running time and insert expository narration throughout was met with fierce, and ultimately successful, resistance by the director. No wonder one of the characters is called Gilliam.

The cast is first-rate, with Chris Evans shedding any trace of noble Steve Rogers and channelling his best Christian Bale as embittered, bearded rebel leader Curtis Everett. Tilda Swinton is again unrecognisable (is she only doing fancy dress roles these days?) as callous, vindictive Mancunian Minister Mason who is chilling and comic in equal measure. With the cast fleshed out by Jamie Bell, Alison Pill, Octavia Spencer, Kang-ho Song, Go Ah-sung, Ed Harris and John Hurt as Gilliam, this is a quality production through and through, with a mature and thoughtful approach to its subject and a revelatory third act which delivers on the promise of the film.

This isn’t a feel-good film by any stretch of the imagination and it remains resolutely committed to its grim and bleak premise right to the end of the film but it resolves its various themes and plotlines in a darkly satisfying way and leaves you as really good science fiction should leave you: with a lot to think about.