In today’s climate of cinematic blockbusters derived from comic books, watching Snowpiercer is akin to taking a refreshing shower. This is ironic considering that much of the film is set in dank, filth-ridden oily conditions and our heroes are wearing dingy clothes and eating slick, black protein bars. Yet, it’s important to consider that, in the latest renaissance of comic book films and other blockbusters that are targeted at teens and adults, it is more and more difficult to find a science fiction film that will dare to make the audience wince and even second-guess its sensibilities and what it can tolerate. There’s no reason to turn a film about colorful superheroes like Avengers into an R-rated affair, and films like The Dark Knight and Captain America: The Winter Soldier largely succeed in maintaining their edge by implying violence instead of showing it on screen, but once in awhile it’s good to see a film – like Snowpiercer – that doesn’t spend all of it’s time shying away from it.
Snowpiercer, based on the graphic novel Le Transperceniege, by Jeques Lob, never received a wide release in the United States because director Bong Joon-ho never compromised his vision to cut 20 minutes from the film as the powers that be requested. The film, released this week on Blu-Ray and DVD, remains as he envisioned it, and it’s the same film that has earned a 95% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes in it’s current form. The film is based around what could be the very definition of a “high concept” the likes of which hasn’t been seen in science fiction films since (as with the violence itself) the 80’s: humanity’s climate control experiment has gone wrong and brought upon a new ice age on the planet, and all of the survivors are stuck on a single train that circles the globe.
Indeed, this concept, which could be described as “Mad Max on a train,” might cause even ardent film fans to balk a bit and adapt a “wait and see” attitude.
Well, now you’ve waited. Time to see, because Snowpiercer makes the most it’s absurd premise by crafting it into one of the more thoughtful adult-oriented science fiction films to be released in years. Despite the brutality of some of the early scenes, the movie is more interested in pondering the human condition and perhaps coming away with an understanding of the purpose of society itself than it is with actual violence. Bloodshed is, after all, merely a natural outcome of the attempt to subdue the sense of freedom that all men strive for. What begins here as a no-holds-barred struggle to survive and start a revolution eventually turns into a treatise on the human condition itself. Isn’t that what has, throughout history, defined the best and most classic science fiction stories.
With the scant remnants of humanity now residing on the train, Curtis (Chris Evans, better known to genre fans as, well, Captain America himself) lives a crummy lifestyle in the rear of the train wherein soldiers and a strict sense of order supersede any sense of freedom he and the other residents might desire to have. Naturally (and that could be the key word here) Curtis decides to lead a revolt. If he and his friends can get to the front of the train and control the engine, he believes that the human population, such as it is, can regain it’s freedom. However, if the train (as depicted in the film) is some kind of allegory, and if what is on board is some kind of microcosm for human society itself, it stands to reason that how far Curtis actually gets to making any significant change to the engine of mankind won’t rely merely on brute force and sheer determination alone. That’s the remarkable aspect about the movie, and it is something that is not readily apparent just upon hearing it’s high concept premise: we learn more and more the longer the film goes on. That didn’t really happen with Evan’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, wherein some interesting notions were pushed aside in favor of a video-game-style ending involving flying aircraft characters, a few microchips, a timer, and a fight with the big boss. Winter Soldier began as the most interesting of all Marvel films before wrapping itself up in relatively safe climactic scenes. By contrast, Snowpiercer grows more and more interesting as it goes along. What begins as a violent struggle to merely forge on ahead actually ends with some very ponderous ideas and notions – notions that turn out to be much more unsettling than all of the bloodshed that had come before, and these same notions force Curtis to reflect and look back. In a movie so intent on pushing it’s characters forward (“fight to the front” is the film’s tagline), this is a pretty remarkable turn.
That’s what the best science fiction stories should be about: notions and honest-to-goodness ideas that will get the audience to question pretty much anything and everything.
My rating: 4.5/5