Snowpiercer: Movie Review

I’m a fan of creative dystopia and when I saw the graphic novel Snowpiercer at Elliot Bay Books I immediately picked it up. The premise is ridiculous, but metaphoric: all the survivors of the human race are stuck on a train together, a train that must keep moving for everyone to survive. Go ridiculous metaphors! What is a good graphic novel without them?

Unfortunately the book isn’t very good. It’s underwritten in most ways and never takes full advantage of the interesting premise. The movie however is much better. I’d recommend it generally for science fiction fans.

The film centers on the struggle between the lowest class of people, those stuck in the back cars called the tail. They live in poverty, have barely anything to eat and struggle to survive. A revolution is brewing and they’re planning a desperate attempt to work their way forward and, if lucky, take control.

I recommend the film for two reasons. The primary metaphor of confined class struggle is explored in different ways. When resources are scarce, or you are at war, what is the best way to govern? It’s no surprise those at the front of the train, who live in luxury, force the belief that where you are born on the train is where you must stay. The second reason I recommend the film is because of its many thoughtful flourishes rarely seen in American action films. Although the film is violent, there are moments when things slow down to capture a snowflake floating by, or the curious handling of a large fish by soldiers just before an awful fight is about to begin. There is a patience and craft at work here that’s hard to ignore. The performances are good, there are surprises and some fantastic sets that take on the challenge of how 1000 people could survive on a train for 20 years.

The film was nearly buried in the U.S. as the Weinstein company demanded changes director Bong Joon-Hoo refused to make. It’s only now after the film has had success in Europe and Asia that it’s finally getting wider release here.

Of course it is still a sci-fi film and there are some cliches and absurdities you must either suspend disbelief for or willfully enjoy.

http://youtu.be/nX5PwfEMBM0

9 Responses to “Snowpiercer: Movie Review”

  1. Steve

    By the end of the movie I was laughing. I don’t think it was intended to be a comedy (it did have moments I assume or hope were intended to be comedic).

    Reply
    1. Scott

      Out of control train movies only have so many ways to end :) As I wrote in the post there were definitely some cliches running around this screenplay.

      Reply
      1. Phil Simon

        I just finished the movie on your recommendation. I was intrigued. I think that I saw the points that the director didn’t want to change; this was no Hollywood film. Very well done. Thanks for the reco.

        Reply
        1. Scott

          Glad you liked it Phil. You could definitely see how the director made interesting choices most Hollywood studios would reject. It felt more like a foreign film in some ways and that’s what made it memorable and interesting.

          Reply
  2. Jason Miller

    Compared to his earlier films (like The Host), I suspect that Joon-ho Bong was inhibited by his source material here. The film’s expository climax is great, but you have to go through a lot to get to it, and then — right after the film has made you think about what you were watching — it wants you to feel hopeful for the future… but if you’re still thinking, you’ll be thinking “dang, they’re even more screwed.” (I’ll blame the source material from a position of ignorance; The Host managed to keep the suffering of the film and end with hope anyway, so I know Bong can handle that complexity successfully.)

    Overall, I’d say that this is the population flaw of Battlestar Galactica, magnified: a constrained population with no room to grow that is actively slagging itself off is going to find that its gene pool is problematically shallow; that the future it thought it was fighting for is woefully inbred. At this point, the metaphor is distorted by scale: things that make sense with a large population (electing a president, having a considerably large security force to rebel against) are the least coherent behaviors to engage in for the maintenance of the quantitatively diminished species as a whole. Writers often wipe out almost all of the species for dramatic focusing effect, but don’t stop to think about the implications of that decision, and Snowpiercer spends most of its time both in and exacerbating that trap.

    Reply
    1. Scott

      I never saw the Host so I’m entirely context free on this film.

      I was interested in the graphic novel, and the movie, largely because of the metaphoric or allegorical elements – I didn’t mind so much that the logic of they organized people and the train was dubious – that was all just backfill to make the core narrative work. Anyway, I’m good at deliberately suspending my disbelief when I watch a film like this, where I know there are absurdities and details – as you say “for dramatic focusing effect.”

      Reply
    2. Christine McGlade

      Jason, great point and love the comparison to BSG. I think Snowpiercer also illuminated the scenario where the remaining (very shallow) gene pool is not the best and the brightest but rather only the rich, and the stragglers. It was also refreshing that those left in charge were not very attractive.

      Reply
      1. Scott

        Christine: good point about how everyone in the film was grungy looking – certainly all of the leads – even star Chris Evans was as a scruffy as can be. The only exceptions were the brief scenes of the first class cars.

        Reply
  3. Sean Crawford

    As for Battlestar Galactica, (I have a BG label on my blog) I liked how each episode started with an ever-changing census count in the credits. We won’t see a show tackling issues like that again in our lifetime…

    Snowpiercer is definitely an art film, not mainstream. The difference is that for mainstream movies, I can recommend them with a star rating to perfect strangers; to give a rating for an art movie I have to know the person I am talking to.

    At work on Monday it was amusing to say, “I saw a movie that I can’t recommend… because it had stabbing, clubbing, impaling, chopping, shooting and machine gunning… and all this on one train!”

    Part of the allegory is when the dumb, decadent, dancing, face-decorated members of the upper class… start fighting in close-combat. I think both George Orwell and Jack London pointed out that the upper class may seem as though they are weak and believe in the rule of law, but in fact they will fight hard, break the rules and change the rules if their dominance is threatened.

    Reply

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