There’s a reason why Snowpiercer — which could have, theoretically, easily been a centerpiece summer film for a major Hollywood studio — is getting handled with the timid kid gloves of an arthouse release by the industry, quietly dribbling into a few cinemas here and there instead of getting a big opening-weekend push out onto three thousand screens. It’s a reason that has a lot to do with what the film has to say about human nature, hope, despotism, and a revolutionary spirit that might want to counter that despotism. What Snowpiercer is about offers too harsh a condemnation of the powers that be, of which Hollywood is but one arm.
At first glance, both from without and for a good chunk of the film’s runtime, Snowpiercer would appear to bear a strong resemblance to plenty of other films in a genre that is popular and mainstream at the moment: the uprising in the science-fiction dystopia, including movies such as Divergent, V for Vendetta, and especially The Hunger Games. (It has also been compared to 1984, and it does share some philosophies with it. I’d also throw in Brazil, in how it rages against the dehumanization of government whose primary concern is self-perpetuation even at the expense of the people it is meant to serve.) The year is 2031, and it’s been 17 years since the last remnants of humanity began huddling together for survival on a sort of supertrain that circumnavigates the world once per year, never stopping. Planet Earth is otherwise dead, rendered a frozen wasteland by an experiment to cool the atmosphere to fix global warming that did the job too well. The train — which literally pierces the enormous drifts of snow that pile up on the tracks — is a closed ecosystem, providing air, water, food, shelter, and warmth. Life is not possible outside the train.
In the squalid rear cars, passengers are treated like cattle, subsist on protein bars that look like molded shit, and are subject to (seemingly) random abuses by soldiers and swells visiting from the front of the train, where life is clearly much more comfortable, if their nice clothes and evidence of regular bathing and grooming is anything to go by. Discontent is always swirling, and it is reaching a head again. (There are allusions to past failed revolutions.) With the support of the rear cars’ nominal leader, Gilliam (John Hurt: Only Lovers Left Alive, Doctor Who), Curtis (Chris Evans: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Iceman) has a new plan for an uprising, one that will get them to the engine at the front of the train, because there is no political power on the train without, you know, controlling the power needed to keep it moving.
If that sounds familiar — the Western nations aren’t actually occupying oil-producing lands out of a desire to bring schools and hospitals to poor brown people — that’s not an accident. The train is a microcosm for our larger world of limited and contracting resources that has somehow resulted not in those resources being shared around evenly and fairly, but in striking class divisions and massive inequalities. You will be unsurprised to hear that Curtis’s plan enjoys some success, and that as he and his band of angry friends work their way forward on the train, they encounter an almost endless array of unimaginable luxuries the front-of-the-train people have been enjoying. You may be surprised, based on what the mainstream versions of this story have told us, at just how bitter are the lessons that Curtis learns: about the high price of leadership, about the appalling ironies of what it takes to fix an unfair system, and about the awful truth of what happens to revolutionaries even if they win.
Screenwriter (with Kelly Masterson: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) and director Bong Joon-ho (Mother) brings a lot of bleak humor in to lighten his tale: naming a main character Gilliam is almost certainly an homage to the filmmaker Snowpiercer gets a lot of its visual inspiration and dark wit from. (This is based on the early-80s graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette, but the film’s plot and characters appear to be quite different.) And there’s much to cheer in how the cast actually looks more like a cross-section of humanity than we typically get in a big SF flick: among Curtis’s band of soldiers are not only more white guys including Jamie Bell (Nymphomaniac, Man on a Ledge) and Ewen Bremner (Jack the Giant Slayer, Great Expectations) but also Octavia Spencer (Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, Smashed) and the Korean duo of Ah-sung Ko and Kang-ho Song; among the villains is Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) as a sniveling monster from the front of the train.
But in the end, this is still hauntingly grim. If Snowpiercer goes about its SF uprising far more brutally than we’re used to — it delivers not only physical violence but psychological punches, too — we only end up realizing that the rise of the tween-friendly Hollywood SF dystopia is, in fact, a symptom of the sociopolitical mindset that the film is underscoring. Abandon most hope, ye who enter Snowpiercer. This is most definitely not the feel-good movie of the summer.