Director: Bong Joon Ho (South Korea, Czech Republic). Year of Release: 2014
2014. As the opening credits roll, we hear news reports of an attempt to defeat Global Warming once and for all. By pumping chemicals high into the atmosphere, we’ll be able to cool down the Earth’s temperature so that it will be safe for the foreseeable future. An intertitle suddenly appears. It seems that the cooling process worked a little too well, and we’ve entered a second Ice Age. The only survivors are on an ark-like train owned by a billionaire, Mr. WIlford.
Soon it’s 17 years later, and as befits a social structure imposed by a billionaire, the train is highly segregated into First Class at the front, Economy Class in the middle and the freeloading proles at the back. The back coaches are heavily policed by guards who bring protein bars every day. The protein bars taste disgusting, but they’re better that what came before. This is one of the few films which contains the line “I know what babies taste like”.
Every so often, someone from up front comes to take away a virtuoso musician, or a child (the gruesome reasons for the latter abduction only become clear later). These are never seen again, causing more resentment among parents who have lost their children. More often than not, the interlocutor is Mason – Tilda Swinton in false buck teeth and a Northern accent which is just funny, whatever she says. Mason is both feared and derided by the seething masses.
The proles are restless, and are looking for someone to lead them in revolt. They first look to Gilliam, whose round glasses and white beard make you think either of Trotsky or of Colonel Sanders, depending on your political upbringing. But Gilliam is getting old and is ready to hand over political leadership to Curtis, who’s spent half his life on the train, and his sidekick Edgar.
Snowpiercer has all the dangers of a clunky metaphor which looks good in the ideas room, but never comes to life on screen (I’m looking at you, High Rise). But here, it just works. Not only do we have a symbol for wanton capitalism, there’s also a basic plot structure, which takes us from A to B. The rebels need to surge from the back of the train to the very front – as someone says, previous uprisings didn’t succeed because they failed to take the engine.
This structure in place, we are ready for discrete scenes in different carriages. The scene where the proles realise that their jailers have run out of bullets and they can make the attack they’ve been rehearsing for years, the one where they open a door and find a squadron of psychopaths, baptising their axes with the blood of a freshly-slaughtered fish, the one where they enter a tunnel and need to find a way of countering tooled up soldiers with night vision.
While all this is going on, the train continues apace – which is shown in stunning aerial shots. The original plan was for it to circuit the world in exactly one year, allowing the passengers to experience all the world’s seasons. But because of recent climate difficulties, its cold out there wherever you are. The train is equipped to be able to break through ice on the line – to pierce the snow as it were.
As the revolutionaries come closer to the front of the train, they lose members, while others are forced to retreat. By the time they approach Wilford, there’s only 3 of them left – Curtis, Namgoong Minsu, a drug-addled Korean security expert, and Namgoong’s 17-year old daughter Yona. This changes the dynamic of the revolution. What was once a mass uprising is now a battle between individuals. At one point, Wilford asks Curtis if he wants to take over the train.
There is a problem of taking an allegorical film too literally, especially if you want to like it because it accords with your politics. For a start, this means overlooking the film’s artistic qualities, which, to a degree, exist independent of the message. It also means that you can look at apparent political weaknesses, and conclude that because of these the film is no good.
There is a brief “and then I woke up and it was all a dream” moment, or rather “I woke up and all that resistance had been manipulated from above”. It’s not the film’s finest moment, but everything has been so impressive so far that we can excuse it this slight falter. Besides which, the film’s real hero is not Curtis, who considers taking over the train (a metaphor for capitalism, nudge-nudge), but Namgoong and Yona who want to blow it up and build something else in its place.
Why haven’t I seen Snowpiercer before? Partly because of the studio system which means that the best films often only reach a limited audience. But you’d have thought that after the Oscar success of director Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, at least the odd cinema would have seen a potential audience. But what do I know? Tonight’s showing was only half-full, despite this being one of the most inventive and intelligent films that I’ve seen in a long time. Still, Spider Man, eh?