Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer is a modern classic when it comes to post-apocalyptic movies.
Have you ever tried to shoot a film on a train? Probably not. It’s likely no one really has, at least not in its entirety. But trains do fascinate the human mind. From classical whodunnits (just think of Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express) to art cinema (Jim Jarmusch’s train sequences in Dead Man) to your Western/outlaw film of choice (The Great Train Robbery) and black-and-white gems (Buster Keaton’s The General), trains have always had a special place in the world of the moving image (oh yes, I almost forgot: Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat). Therefore, Bong Joon-ho’s choice of casting a hyper-tech train as the main character for Snowpiercer (2013) shouldn’t feel awkward at all.
At first, everything seems to run smoothly aboard this prodigious means of transport. But let’s just begin at the beginning. The world as we know it has ended. A pernicious gas has lowered carbon dioxide emissions to zero, but, at the same time, it has brought about a new ice age. Cold-deserted planet Earth is now devoid of homo sapiens – except for the train of genius inventor Mr. Wilford, which circles the globe on pre-laid tracks and is home to the very last of us. There are greenhouses. There are animals to be turned into meat. There’s running water. There’s every kind of comfort you could ask for on a never-ending luxury cruise.
Still, there can’t be light without darkness. In fact, only a small percentage of the passengers live the good life. The bulk of them is actually stacked at the rear: those who are caged there are third-class passengers – the poor ones, and those who boarded the train out of sheer fortune 17 years earlier. Third-classers sleep in bunk beds and their living space closely resembles a concentration camp’s barrack system. Only rarely do third-classers sleep: they’re waiting for a signal. A certain red piece of paper that will give them the green assault light to storm first class and fight their way towards the head of the train – Mr. Wilford (Ed Harris)’s den – to claim equity and equality for all.
And the journey of rebels’ chief Curtis (Chris Evans) towards the front of the train is what Bong’s Snowpiercer is literally all about. From double binds to epiphanies of self-recognition, Curtis’s linear progression is tracked step by step by Bong’s exceptional one-liner directing style. Sprinkling slow-mo and action sequences onto a quest for inner freedom, writer-director Bong never lets the story slack. Hollywoodian tight-pace rhythms get counterbalanced by the director’s keen eye, who knows how to make magic happen mingling terrifying revelations and uplifting spells of laughter.
There are no opponents in Snowpiercer’s game of chess. However, everyone is a contestant and the ones who play by the rules are the first to fall. A decade after the boom of post-apocalyptic movies, Snowpiercer still retains the power to make us uncomfortably wonder: what would my choice be? Would I, too, have fallen for the most basic human vice – to ask questions and answer them ourselves? The self-evident is a category Bong doesn’t like very much – and, if that matters at all, neither does Korean-born cinema as a general rule. Of course, there’s absurdity, the bad kind of absurdity – weird jump cuts in causality or technological inconsistence – but when there’s a compelling massage rolling in the background, we gladly accept simple self-evidence with a condescending smile.
So, we cannot but deplore the fact that there’s a Snowpiercer-spin off series on its way. Backstories are most fascinating when they lie silent in the dark. And further plot developments turn the pleasure of empty speculation into the drag of clue-finding. After all, maybe you got Parasite’s message in the end. Maybe you didn’t, or you’re not sure you actually got it. And that’s beautiful. That’s the way a film keeps living inside us and working its magic on our emotional brain cells. Just imagine a sequel to Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Where would the poetry of it be?
Lionsgate presents Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer available for the first time on UK Blu-ray™ and DVD 25 May 2020.