The optimist inside us would love to believe that in the event of an actual apocalypse, the few surviving members of the human race would leave behind all of the crippling aspects of modern society and pull together as a team regardless of race or class in order to ensure the survival of the species.
Loosely based on a French graphic novel, Snowpiercer takes the more pessimistic (And unfortunately perhaps more realistic) approach to that scenario and posits that even if humanity in its entirety was literally cut down to a couple hundred people, we’d still find a way to create a class system that would punish the poor into a life of misery while the rich becomes richer.
After an experiment meant to take care of global warming goes horribly wrong and freezes the entire planet, the handful of survivors live on a train that keeps riding around Earth. The poor majority is squeezed into the last car of the train, living in squalor, surviving on mystery "protein bars" (You do not want to know what they’re made of). They’re kept there by gunmen under threat of death and the propaganda from the rich that try to convince them it’s their natural place in society to suffer.
Meanwhile, the rich minority enjoys the many luxuries offered on the rest of the train, including but not limited to a wide variety of quality food, comfortable lodging, a spa, and even a nightclub. The train was built by the mysterious and elusive Wilford (Ed Harris), who also apparently conducts it through his private car at the front of the train like a one percenter Wizard of Oz.
To those who might think this premise sounds too much like an extreme left-wing nutjob wet dream of a new world order, consider the result of a recent study that found out the richest 85 people in the world (Not 85.000, not 8500, 85. Period) has as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion. If you condensed that fraction into a train, would the result really look that much different?
Sick of their status in this society, a group of rebels from the back plan a revolution. They’re led by Curtis (Chris Evans), who still suffers from the disgusting decisions he made in the past in order to survive, and Gilliam (John Hurt), a wise old man whose leadership skills keeps the poor from tearing each other apart. Once they take over the police force through genius guesswork, the revolutionary forces advance one car at a time in order to reach their final goal: Get to the front, kill Wilford and take over the train.
On paper, this linear plot might sound like we’re in for yet another video game-style action, like the vastly overrated The Raid and its sequel to a certain degree. Defenders of The Raid always claim that the ass-kickingly awesome fight scenes cover up for the lack of a coherent and original story. But why can’t we ask for the complete package?
Snowpiercer is chock full of grisly, violent and intense fight scenes that are executed with an expert approach to tension and style. An action set piece that takes place while the train’s riding under a long tunnel trumps even the oft-worshipped claw hammer train battle sequence from The Raid 2 in intensity and craftsmanship. The exciting climax of the scene carries the same operatic tone as some of Sergio Leone’s best work. Who could have guessed how much your emotional involvement in an expertly crafted action sequence would intensify when you actually give a crap about the characters?
Yes, Snowpiercer brings the blood-soaked, hyper-violent action goodies in spades. But it’s also a deft study on our current sociopolitical climate, a brutal and sometimes downright funny satire, and a counter-cultural science-fiction behemoth that almost borders on full-on anarchy.
Even if you don’t end up as its biggest fan, you have to at least admit that this movie has a big set of cojones for being able to pull of an ending so nihilistic in nature, it would have never flown in a Hollywood studio picture. It reminded me of one of George Carlin’s most famous quotes: "The planet isn’t going anywhere. We are!"
Snowpiercer was directed Joon-ho Bong, whose The Host also used a genre approach, this time a monster movie, to present an allegory on humanity’s sociopolitical structure. The screenplay by Bong and Kelly Masterson, who previously penned Sidney Lumet’s final masterpiece Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, find a perfect balance in compacting the wildly shifting tones the story requires in order to bring together an impeccably-paced piece of subversive entertainment.
The performances are solid all around, but I can’t help but mention Tilda Swinton’s staunch dedication to a character that could have turned into a shameless caricature. She plays Mason, the Thatcher-like liaison between the rich and the poor who spews ridiculous propaganda with a straight face. Her delivery in a genius monologue where she tries to explain to the poor class how they’re like the shoe of society while the rich are like the hat deserves the admission price alone.
Snowpiercer reminds us once again that genre pictures can be smart, sophisticated and even a little bit dangerous to the status quo. I know that it won’t make enough of a splash in the cultural zeitgeist to gather the attention of Fox News pundits, but I would love to see the heads of those who foamed at the mouth over innocuous fare like The Lego Movie over its light criticism of capitalism explode over a sci-fi actioner starring Captain America that condones point blank execution of the rich elite.