A wonderfully weird premise marred by highly uneven execution. Big spoilers below.
Snowpiercer has one of the most original post-apocalyptic premises in film that I’ve come across. It is a premise that is at once dizzyingly outlandish yet pregnant with metaphoric potential. A world where efforts at climate engineering have backfired and turned the world into a frozen wasteland, where the only survivors are trapped in a claustrophobic cylinder of steel and smoke threading its aimless and perpetual way through the icy desolation. Scarcity forces a pathological inequity on society, forcing the bulk of the population to live at the back of the train while the elites inhabit the front coaches in unimaginable luxury, sustained by the cult of Wilford, the mysterious man who maintains the perpetual motion engine that keeps the train moving on its globe-spanning journey.
As a setting, the world of Snowpiercer is a perfect microcosm of human existence, played out on a much smaller stage. Like the people on the train, we hurtle onward on our eternal orbit around the sun, separated from death only by a thin layer of air. Scarcity of space and resources drives conflict in our world, borne out of crushing inequity, just as it does in Snowpiercer. The train is itself a potent metaphor for class difference: a series of gated carriages that play out a long linear hierarchy between lowest and highest. It is only the incongruity of the image of a train containing the last vestiges of human civilization speeding aimlessly across the frozen Earth that causes this metaphor to truly reflect how truly absurd our existence on this planet can seem in the face of the infinite indifference of the cosmos. (It’s apt that I watched this movie sitting in the Economy section of a plane hurtling through the cold darkness of near-space toward San Francisco, one of those rare instances the viewer’s physical circumstances lend extra texture to the viewing experience, like watching The Thing in an Antarctic research base or Gravity on the International Space Station.)
It’s somewhat disappointing, then, that this film is so uneven in its execution. It is almost anime-like in its trifecta of contradictions: a mindblowingly creative premise, a somewhat dull cast with a couple of standout performances, and a muddled narrative lurching to an ambiguous ending.
We’ve talked about how the premise is a good one. The overarching narrative, the metaplot, as it were, emerges from the premise and is compelling on paper. The protagonist, a scruffy revolutionary named Curtis, leads the revolt of the rear-carriage denizens to take over the train. They succeed, at great cost, in reaching the front – but it turns out that their revolution has been pre-ordained, a regular exercise that serves to cull the population of the train to a sustainable level. This culling was necessary, even desirable, to ensure that humanity’s spark would always continue to exist. The film’s denouement is a somewhat anarchic rejection of this arrangement, however – the protagonists attempt to blow open the train doors to escape, thinking that the outside may actually be survivable. However, in doing so they cause an avalanche and destroy the train entirely. The survivors, two children, stumble out of the wreck, surveying the landscape of ice before them, until they see a polar bear padding along in the distance, evidence that life exists outside. This overarching plot plays out well in the setting of the perpetual train. The train, itself, represents the absurdities and old hierarchical structures of the Old World, in which leaders use the chimera of the Other as a means of keeping the populace in check, with the perpetual cycle extending through generations. The only way to escape this eternal cycle is through making a wilful decision to leave it, a circumstance laced with Buddhist undertones. It’s not new – a similar premise was enacted, in a much more muddled fashion, in the Matrix movies – but the movie, I think, executes this overarching plot well.
It’s the smaller details where the film falters, however – notably in the plodding first half of the film, with long, plodding exposition interspersed with moments of deadening violence. The film is marred with a poor performance from Chris Evans, who plays the bearded Curtis and mumbles and growls his way through the uninspired script, exuding little of the charisma or intelligence that a revolutionary leader is supposed to have.
The sole bright spot in this mediocre mess of a first half is Minister Mason, a functionary of the elites and Wilford’s spokesperson, brilliantly played by Tilda Swinton. Swinton infuses her role with a kind of grotesque, stuffy malice, a malevolent and condescending headmistress whose tics betray her fearful distrust of those she considers below her station.
The moment the film starts to pick up is when the revolutionaries enter a classroom of children and their incongruously cheery teacher, educating them on the greatness of their Dear Leader Wilson. That rather disquieting and chilling scene marks an abrupt transition between the industrial dirt of the tail section of the train and the resplendence of the front, and from then on, the film gets stranger, and stranger is better. Evans remains insipid throughout; however, the film is sustained as the plot is set into motion, when hitherto it had largely been hidden from view. And from there, the film picks up steam, and never looks back.
Ultimately, the film’s flaws in characterization, pacing and direction are overshadowed by its visual and metaphorical spectacle. Snowpiercer is a portrait of humanity’s worst excesses, imposed upon it by the strictures of resource constraints. In it, humanity is frozen like a mote in a hermetic bullet of perpetually mobile stasis, living out its decadent fantasies of war and plenty while ever-present death bites at its heels. A fitting satire for the endless march of human existence, one which elevates the film from another cookie-cutter post-apocalyptic flick to something more intriguing, something stranger, almost approaching that sweet spot of the weird, the twisted, and the sublime. If anything, it deserves to be watched if only for that twisted mirror that it holds up to ourselves.
I give this film: 3.5 out of 5 protein bars