Snowpiercer is set in a post-apocalyptic future, where after an environmental disaster, the whole of humanity is forced to exist together on a single train, endlessly circling the earth with no destination. The film is based on a French graphic novel (and subsequent English-translation) of the same name, and while the film and the novel share little in terms of story, the world of Jacques Lob, Jean-Marc Rochette, and Benjamin Legrand is brilliantly brought to life by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho.
Bong and co-writer Kelly Masterson have mastered what I wish more adaptation would give a try; that is, take the essence of a work and create a story suited to the big screen. The novel is one giant allegory for class stratification, and there are a myriad of ideas that the novel explores from social injustice to resource production and monopoly. It’s an overwhelming task to touch on all these in one film, but Bong and Masterson manage to include a large portion of them without sacrificing their depth or audience satisfaction. When people live within mere feet of each other and the class you belong to not only dictates your physical place on the train but seals your lifelong fate, problems are amplified and dealt with in excruciatingly brutal ways. Without hope, and without purpose, how does one hold on to humanity? The film asks this question, and seeks to answer it through its protagonist Curtis (Chris Evans).
This film is best viewed knowing as little as possible going in, but suffice it to say that Curtis is not Captain America. He is not the hero one would choose, but he is the reluctant leader the people of the tail section (i.e. the slums) are pinning whatever lingering hope remains on. When the children of Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and Andrew (Ewen Bremner) are taken by upperclass enforcers, its the final impetus Curtis needs to implement his plan of laying siege on the luxury cars and overtaking Snowpiercer’s engine and its creator Wilford (Ed Harris). He is supported by confident Edgar (Jamie Bell), mentor Gilliam (John Hurt), and securities architect Nam (Kang-ho Song) and his daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko). The simple truth is that with diminishing personhood comes a “nothing to lose” mentality that begins with Curtis and his rag-tag team of soldiers on a mission and ends with Curtis reaching the objective, at the expense of others. It’s one of the few times we see a hero so calculated, but Evans plays Curtis very well. We sometimes don’t like what we see, but we understand what needs to be done in the context of this crazy steel universe.
The universe of Snowpiercer as it exists in the novel is a little illogical, and at times even a little forced to make a point, and while some of that seeps through to the film, Bong populates his Snowpiercer universe with enough grounded characters and details that allow us to be wholly onboard (pun intended) as the action unfolds. This world is dirty, it’s characters are hard, but relatable, and in the end we are invited to remember that despite the lowest depths humanity can sink to, there is always a bright white horizon left to ascend.
Snowpiercer is a rare gem in a genre that often entangles itself in too much CGI surface luster at the detriment to other more worthwhile cinematic endeavors. Bong keeps the characters central to the story, and while there is plentiful and expertly crafted action sequences the audience is never left wondering the point of it all.
Snowpiercer is now playing at AMC Cherry Hill and AMC Neshaminy.