I remember back when Twilight was the big thing and vampire romances were more popular than God’s own bacon, and I would smugly present Let The Right One In to my Twi-Hard friends to show them what a vampire romance with some actual teeth looked like. These days, in the wake of the massive success of Hunger Games, vampires would seem to have been knocked off their pedestal as the number one tween fiction genre of choice by dystopian futures with a-bit-too-obvious allegories for class inequalities and social upheaval. And just like I was waving Let The Right One In around to show people how cool and with it I was in the then-current cultural landscape, I expect I’ll be telling more than a few rabid Hunger Games fans about how Snowpiercer is so much better and that I’m better for knowing it fairly soon.
Directed by South Korea’s Bong Joon-Ho and starring Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton and John Hurt, Snowpiercer takes place almost entirely on a train containing the last dregs of the human race after an attempt to halt global warming backfired and caused the next ice age. The rich, affluent and corrupt get to stay at the front of the train, give themselves stupid hairstyles and dress like idiots while the noble working classes are exiled to the back end of the train, and forced to endure sensible haircuts and functional, stylish trench coats. Of course, this doesn’t sit well with Chris Evans’ character Curtis, who mounts a revolution to take the front of the train from the mysterious owner and his Thatcherish henchwoman played by Swinton.
I’d be hard pressed to think of another recent film that embraced a linear story structure so fervently as Snowpiercer. Of course, given the setting it’s hard not to. But still, just like Curtis’ mantra of always moving forward, once the revolution starts and the action kicks in, Snowpiercer only ever moves forward, never going back to previous locations and never staying in one place too long. There’s always a sense that things are going somewhere, a thrust in the story that never seems to stop until the last fifteen minutes or so. This isn’t one of those films that seems to wander or lose track of itself, it does a fantastic job at staying on point, at least until that ending.
The cast all outdo themselves, with special accolades going to Swinton and Evans. For the most part Evans is wearing out the “reluctant leader” trope until it’s down to a few clinging fibers, like the pair of underwear you keep forgetting to throw out. But towards the end during a moment of quiet Evans delivers what may be the best dramatic monologue I’ve seen him ever do. Tilda Swinton does exactly what we’ve all come to expect of Tilda Swinton at this point: completely vanish into a role to the point that the fact that she recently played an ethereal rock n’ roll vampire sex queen seems completely inconceivable. I don’t even know how it’s fucking possible that she played both Eve in Only Lovers Left Alive and the prim, sexless, post-apocalyptic Thatcherite shrew she plays here, but there she is, all false teeth and inch-thick glasses, as icy and villainous as Eve was sexual and beguiling.
The visuals are another major strong suit for the film, and as odd as this may sound coming from me, it’s one of the only films I’ve seen recently that makes shakeycam work. Things never seem so out of control that we can’t tell what’s happening, and Joon-Ho adds these quick little zooms to the mix to zero in on important elements. It’s an ingenious little solution to one of shakey-cam’s major problems, one that I can’t help but feel that lesser directors will try to emulate and ultimately misuse in the future.
Where things get a big wobbly is the script, unfortunately. I have friends who tear their hair out at the most piddling little scientific inaccuracies in films, and Snowpiercer will probably have the lot of them looking like, well, me. But where as other films make these mistakes out of ignorance, I got the sense with Snowpiercer that it was more of a case of the allegory of the whole thing weighing down on the science of it like a fat man in the top of a bunk bed slowly crushing the person below them in the night.
Whenever a new piece of information comes our way about the workings of the train or the universe we’re in, odds are that a few perfectly plausible but much less allegorically interesting alternatives to that problem or design will occur to you immediately. I can’t help but feel that maybe Snowpiercer would have turned out a bit better if they’d just dropped any pretense at hard science fiction and gone full-on expressionist. The film is already pretty much Metropolis on a train, just go nuts with it.
But I can’t disparage Snowpiercer for just how damn cynical it is, towards not just the class inequality the whole thing is built around, but the uprisings and revolutions it seems at the outset to be espousing. The protagonists, as we learn, are hardly the saintly messianic figures we’ve come to expect from these kinds of dystopian shindigs. There are no heroes in the eyes of Snowpiercer, just people who the world hasn’t had a chance to fuck up yet, and maybe people marginally less fucked up than the people around them.
And even though it may be flawed, and goes a bit off the rails by the end (HAH, I didn’t even mean to make that one), it’s a hell of a fun ride and has more ideological teeth than all the Divergent Games and Hungry Givers you can mention, and that counts for a hell of a lot in my books.