In his new film Snowpiercer, South Korean director Joon-ho Bong paints a somber portrait of humanity set in an ice age, and pulls no punches when it comes to exposing man’s deviances.
In 2031, following a malfunction of anti-global warming agents, the planet is plunged into an ice age that kills off most of the world’s population. The last survivors are loaded onto a revolutionary train (the Snowpiercer you may have guessed) which never stops and travels around the globe once a year. On board, a true class system evolves with the “elite” train at the front, awash in comforts, and the “poor” at the end, who survive any way they can under deplorable conditions. Inevitably, a revolt is organized behind Curtis (Chris Evans), who plans to go the front of the train all the way to the engine where Wilford (Ed Harris), the uncontested master and creator of the Snowpiercer, resides…
In this adaptation from the 1980’s comic book by Jean-Marc Rochette of the same name, Joon-ho Bong offers up an apocalyptic vision of the future where the survival instinct takes precedence over people’s humanity. Man – or human beings rather – because this issue comes up often in his films and the filmmaker never gets tired of making human behavior understood in all types of situations: “I want to probe human nature under extreme circumstances – whether it’s a serial killer (Memories of Murder), a monster that appears in the Hangang River (The Host), or a mother who sinks into madness (Mother). I was destined to make Snowpiercer.”
Destiny in fact plays a role here, because it was during an unremarkable visit to a bookstore in Seoul in 2005 that Joon-ho Bong randomly came upon a copy of the original French comic book. He read it in one sitting and thought immediately about a film adaptation, which nonetheless took almost eight years to see the light of day, a fact that seems almost ridiculous when you learn that filming took scarcely three months!
Beyond the obvious allusions to Noah’s Ark, Snowpiercer is more than anything an allegory of life: it continues moving forward without stopping, and its inhabitants are born, they die, fight, and love in an eternal re-beginning. The struggle between members of the lower social class and their torturers at the front of the train was inspired by a number of conflicts throughout History and Joon-ho Bong places particular significance on the serious lack… of humanity among humans in times of crisis, particularly pointing out treachery, violence, absence of pity and even cannibalism.
With regard to casting, the South-Korean filmmaker reached out to the beautiful set, starting with Chris Evans, whose portrayal is moving as the head of the rebellion despite his hesitation in accepting his role as leader. Accustomed to “shallower” roles (with the exception of the phenomenal Sunshine by Danny Boyle, which I heartily recommend), the Captain America star shows he has more than one arrow in his quiver. Unrecognizable in the role of Mason, Wilford’s unscrupulous guard dog, Tilda Swinton is no less astonishing, in fact we find ourselves almost falling in love with the character; the charisma of the British actress is just that captivating. Add to this the presence of Ed Harris, Jamie Bell, the inexhaustible John Hurt, and the terrifying Vlad Ivanov, and you’ll understand Snowpiercer is more than just window dressing.
Although the film as a whole stays on track with a few spectacular combat scenes and rather exceptional exterior shots (especially the train as it passes over the dilapidated Yekaterina bridge – if you’re prone to dizziness, look away!) the script contains several inconsistencies and at the end they phone it in a bit. Despite everything, the suspense keeps us on the edge of our seats throughout the film and it’s therefore with good reason that I put Snowpiercer in the category of “go see it when you can.”
Directed by Joon-ho Bong, with Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer…