Like 99% of the 99%, South Korean filmmaker
Bong Joon-ho doesn’t like where the very recent, huge spike in the disparity
between the world's rich and poor is heading. He’s found a vent for his anger in French
graphic novel La
Transperceneige, which has become SNOWPIERCER, his sledgehammer allegory for
everything wrong with the age of the 1% and their staggering ideology
of arrogance and self-entitlement.
Set in 2031, it’s 18
years since an attempt to quell climate change went horribly wrong and brought
about a man-made ice age. The only life left on Earth is all aboard Snowpiercer, a huge train perpetually
barreling along on a giant, world-spanning circuit of track (one lap per year).
But even in these dire circumstances, humanity has fucked itself from the start
– around 90% of the survivors are crammed into ghetto carriages at the rear,
kept there by armed guards. Those at the front live in decadence and plenty, and their familiar sense of entitlement to it. The occassionally, the povs watch as one or two of their children is taken forward - to a better life? They can only hope. These disappearances are usually accompanied by a lecture from the propagandist Mason (Tilda Swinton),
reinforcing just how lucky shit like them is to be on the train in the first
But among the oppressed masses are Curtis (Chris Evans), Edgar (Jamie Bell) and Gilliam (John Hurt). They have revolution on their minds, and it’s not long before they begin a long, bloody fight all the way to the front of Snowpiercer, to the engine room; they must reach and confront the train’s designer and engineer Wilford (Ed Harris), or the carnage will have been for nothing.
SNOWPIERCER is so broad-stroke it's satire, but it works. Also, it’s only sporadically funny; full credit to Australian critic Jason Di Rosso for spotting first that this is more SALO than BRAZIL (although there's considerably less rape and force-feeding of poo than the former, and Ondrej Nekvasil’s production train design, with each carriage different from the last, certainly echoes the latter). What moments of levity there are, come from the most unlikely places - Swinton nearly steals the show as Wilford’s propagandist Mason. As hilarious as she is bizarre, Swinton has chosen play this bureaucratic snake as a twisted, condescending, bitchy schoolmarm: think Thora Hird channeling Margaret Thatcher; a villain we can truly hate and at the same time piss ourselves laughing at. These moments are a light peppering, though - for the most part it's a grim and justifiably angry fight, yet an energetic, exciting and visceral one.
There are very few stray threads here, yet Chris Evans’ Curtis, becomes progressively more inconsistent as the film progresses, and come crunch time his motives are remain confusingly murky. Bong's scenario also excises religion from the equation altogether, which is either an oversight or a cheat. On a more superficial level, there’s a daft twist or two here and there, but nothing that can’t be easily covered by the film’s broad style; by and large, SNOWPIERCER is powered by a clever, precise script which answers every question you can throw at it.
Behind the camera, amongst the above mentioned amazing and inventive design work, there are some marvellous set pieces to be thrilled by. My only criticism is that we may have hit a new low in shaky-cam. I’m not against it in principle - it’s not a bad technique to adopt if they didn’t have the time/budget or space for clever choreography, but it’s appallingly applied here - simply wobbling the camera from side to side is a shitty shortcut. Where’s (BOURNE cinematographer) Oliver Wood and his crew when you need them?
But those niggles are trivial next to what has been achieved here. SNOWPIERCER is a rare beast: explosive action sci-fi with both a brain and a conscience. One of the best of 2014, see it on the biggest screen you can.
SNOWPIERCER is released June 25 in the US, and August 7 in Australia.