Trains and philosophy have a long history – from the apparently faultless argument for the existence of a god which posits the illogicality of an endless series of carriages with no driver, to the juicy anti-determinism argument which detests the idea of humanity’s journey as being one that merely moves along predestinate grooves (alright, that was a tram, but the idea’s the same). Snowpiercer, the new film from director Bong Joon-Ho, adapted from Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette’s cult-y French BD (graphic novel) Le Transperceneige, takes a rather more literal approach to train-based philosophy.
Set in the near future after a The Day After Tomorrow-style environmental catastrophe (albeit one with slightly more sci-fi overtones) has made the world a frozen and uninhabitable wasteland, the film sees the last remnants of the human race living aboard a supertrain travelling constantly across a worldwide rail network, powered by a perpetual motion machine. The people up front lie in the lap of luxury while those in the rear live in squalor, eat slimy nourishment bars and dream of a fairer world. Under the reluctant leadership of Curtis (Chris Evans), a group of these tail-enders set out towards the engine.
Evidently, the journey at the centre of the film, the rise of the outcast against the oppression of the ruling classes, follows a well-worn path. Very much like the titular train itself, Snowpiercer is cosmetically sleek but underneath the surface we find that the clanks and rattles are very familiar. Logic is also an outside consideration, and there are some glaring errors and oversights. This isn’t to say that the film isn’t enjoyable, however. It is. Very. If anything the simple plot helps the film along, letting the weight rest on the direction and the performances, both almost faultless. There is a sense that nobody has been constrained here, that no limits were imposed on the artists.
I only know Bong Joon-Ho from his sweet, inventive and emotionally engaging monster picture, The Host. The visual mastery is once again present, as is the refreshing ingenuity. As with The Host, no scene unfurls quite as you expect it to, and even the blandest of character moments are brought to glorious life under Bong’s playful eye. There are one or two moments where the budget doesn’t quite match the ideas, and the view from the train never looks like anything more than green screen, but this disjunction only serves to remind us of the visual nature of the narrative.
Every performance has its own special timbre, with each actor seemingly approaching the script as a monologue, and yet they all somehow mesh into a beguiling harmony. Tilda Swinton’s monstrous Northern ambassador to the lower classes is perhaps the most adventurous and (as a result?) the most successful. Swinton chews, slurps and caresses the scenery in equal measure, and draws the eye in her every scene. Chris Evans’s hero is weary and driven, but likeable enough to carry us through the formulaic moments and, crucially, believable enough to support the more outlandish ones (though, this being Bong, one never quite knows how funny the dark bits are supposed to be, and vice versa). The Host’s father and daughter, Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung, are back here in matching familial roles and as wonderful as ever, affecting and sweet. Jamie Bell as chirpy sidekick and John Hurt as wise old sage do well with the little they have, and Ed Harris gets to ham it up while eating beef. While there might not be any career-best performances herein, everyone (with the possible exception of Harris) is at the upper end of their game.
With its focus on class division above race, this film feels somehow timely, a fable for the credit-crunch generation. It certainly has the timelessness of a parable, which just might tell us something depressing about ourselves. Humans oppressing humans, classes imposing themselves and power being misused are all cyclical occurrences, like the fluctuating temperature of the planet. That good must always fall to bad, and bad to good, is something Bong Joon-Ho understands, and Snowpiercer neatly rides this dichotomy.
While it lacks enough originality to be called a masterpiece, Snowpiercer has a distinct personality and it won’t be surprising to see it listed among the top films of the year. Smooth, comfortable and with some stunning scenery, this is a train everyone should take.