Joon-Ho Bong’s Snowpiercer starts with an intriguing premise: the world has frozen solid after a global warming experiment gone wrong, and all of humanity now inhabits a high-tech train that perpetually circles the earth. (Train wreck jokes would, perhaps, be too obvious.) Snowpiercer squanders this premise on a hackneyed tale of the struggle between the evil, oppressive 1% – represented here by those who live in the “front” of the train – and the noble, oppressed 99%, represented by those who are stuck in the “tail” of the train. Bong, an excellent director with several great films under his belt (including The Host and Mother), imbues the proceedings with visual inventiveness and flair, but Snowpiercer’s pleasing aesthetic qualities can’t mitigate the script’s glaring shortcomings.
As the film opens, Curtis (Chris Evans), a member of the unfailingly righteous 99%, is planning a revolt against the tyrannical 1%. He is aided and abetted by Edgar (Jamie Bell) and Gilliam (John Hurt, and yes, the name seems like a nod to Terry Gilliam). We are also introduced to Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and Andrew (Ewen Bremmer), whose children are abducted by the evil 1%, thus giving them reason to join the revolt (which is a more tangible reason than anyone else). Note how I haven’t described any of these people’s personalities.
Before we can catch our breath – or become invested in the characters or the world that’s being created – the revolt begins, and it’s a non-stop, action-packed race to the front of the train. Curtis and the other oppressed – joined on the way by Namgoong Minsoo (Bong’s regular collaborator Kang-ho Song), who has the technical know-how to open doors, and his daughter Yona (Ah-Sung Ko), who is evidently clairvoyant (this is never explained) – fight their way through car after car of the oppressive security forces, led by Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton employing a bizarre accent in what seems like an attempt to outdo Jodie Foster’s in Elysium). It’s as unrelentingly repetitive as it sounds, despite Bong’s best efforts to change things up: one fight, taking place in total darkness, is seen through the POV of night-vision goggles.
The film improves somewhat in its second half. After the tiringly grimy “tail end” cars, the increasingly surreal designs of the “front end” cars – among them a repellently chipper school of indoctrination, a greenhouse and an aquarium car complete with sushi bar – demonstrate a refreshing sense of visual innovation. The new environs also rejuvenate the film’s set pieces a bit: a close-quarters confrontation in a sauna car is one of Snowpiercer’s better action sequences.
Even so, by the time Curtis and his surviving compatriots reach the engine and new, increasingly nonsensical plot revelations start piling up on each other, the film is starting to (if you’ll pardon the pun) run out of steam, rolling along to a muddled and awkward climax. The climax is especially problematic because it comes down to a thematic battle between two ideologies that haven’t been clearly defined, clashing against each other in a confused hodgepodge.
As for the cast, Chris Evans performs well enough in the lead role of Curtis, but he’s given virtually nothing to do until a backstory-revealing monologue that comes, bafflingly, three quarters into the film’s runtime. The scene, in isolation, is great – directed well by Bong and played well by Evans, who demonstrates acting chops which may surprise some – but it’s too little, too late. The placement of the scene is utterly confounding: why save this character-establishing information for so late in the film? Imagine if Finding Nemo concealed what happened to Nemo’s mother and siblings until Marlin revealed it in a monologue outside the window of the dentist’s office. Worse still, the only thing approaching an “arc” – which centers on Curtis’ supposed struggle with taking up the responsibility of becoming a leader – is handled in the most incomprehensible manner imaginable. Curtis tells us in the film’s early moments that he is reluctant to lead the tail-enders, and yet within minutes he begins to do so. Later on, there’s some lingering half-hearted business about Curtis being reluctant, even though he’s demonstrated nothing but leadership and he’s not exactly going to have an opportunity to relinquish it in the middle of a full-throttle race to the front of the train.
Sadly, no one else in the film’s impressive international ensemble fares better. This is especially disheartening when one considers the strength of the characters in Bong’s previous works. Here, John Hurt is reduced to playing Eccentric Wizened Mentor (as he did in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). Ed Harris is reduced to Megalomaniacal Mastermind With God Complex (as he did in The Truman Show). Jamie Bell is reduced to Spunky Sidekick, Octavia Spencer to Protective Mother (incidentally, a role done much better in Bong’s Mother), and so on. Not a single one of the characters is invested with personality or motivation beyond the archetype they fill. The dialogue doesn’t do them any favors: this is the kind of film where people have clumsy, on-the-nose exchanges like “Where is everybody?” “Looks like they were in a hurry.” and a line like “When was the last time you were alone? You can’t remember, can you? So please do.” is supposed to pass for profundity.
Thematically, there’s not much going on beyond the trite depiction of the struggle between the oppressed lower class and the oppressive upper class. Snowpiercer makes no attempt to explore these ideas in any sort of depth, resorting to an oversimplified approach wherein the 1% is uniformly evil and the 99% uniformly good – or at least, if it has any problems, they can be blamed on the 1%. The front-enders’ deification of Wilford could be read as a half-baked indictment of religion, although Wilford’s quasi-Darwinian ideology also reads as a half-baked indictment of irreligion. Ultimately, Snowpiercer seems to veer towards something approaching nihilism, asking if humanity is worth saving and never decisively answering the question (unless you count a halfheartedly hopeful closing image). The whole film ends up feeling like a first draft – a paper written hastily by a student who, in an effort to stand out, threw in every Big Question he could think of without forming the final product into a coherent whole.
Any merit Snowpiercer has comes from the direction of Joon-Ho Bong, whose zeal makes the film generally watchable in spite of all its flaws, and lends the work a unique and distinctive feel. Snowpiercer has many problems, but being generic is not one of them. Considering how genuinely exciting the film is on a surface level, it’s just that much more of a shame that everything beneath is a jumbled, vapid, half-baked mess.