Bong-joon Ho's Snowpiecer isn't simply a movie, it's a manifesto. It's a manual for revolution, both political and cinematic. It is a masterpiece that fulfills every promise science fiction, telling an exciting, action-packed story about our world today couched in the world of tomorrow.
In the near future mankind's attempts to battle global warming go terribly wrong; the scientific breakthrough meant to stabilize global temperatures freezes the planet in an instant. Only a few survive: those who were rich enough to buy tickets on Snowpiercer and those sad souls who mobbed the platform in the last moments, giving up all they had for a cramped berth in steerage. Snowpiercer is a futuristic train that never needs to stop. Its course winds around the world, and its perpetual motion engine keeps it going. Snowpiercer, the dream of industrialist Wilford (Ed Harris) is a closed ecosystem, creating all its own food and water and goods. It's perfectly calibrated... except for the wretches in back.
Life at the back of the train is a nightmare. Snowpiercer has been traveling for 17 years, long enough for an entire generation to come up in the dark, cramped confines of the cattle cars. Up front the rich frolic and destroy their brains with drugs (the better to forget they're the final dregs of humanity, trapped on a snowball) while in the rear people fight to survive, living on a diet of slimy protein bars, having their children mysteriously called forward to serve Wilford and never return. There have been uprisings in the past, but all have failed. Now Curtis (Chris Evans) is ready to try again. He's been getting mysterious messages from someone in the front of the train, and he's convinced that the guards who subjugate the Tail Enders are holding guns that fired their last bullets years ago. He leads a diverse band of freedom fighters forward, car by car, intending to take the engine.
Snowpiercer is a masterpiece, and like all masterpieces it is the result of many people doing amazing, next level work. Chris Evans is one of them; he's our next great movie star, a man with the charisma to hold you rapt in any scene but also the chops to play a character like Curtis, who keeps peeling away layers and revealing himself. Curtis is, in many ways, similar to Captain America: a brave, idealistic leader of men. But this isn't a comic book movie, and Curtis must deal with deep, difficult moral questions as he drives his revolution forward. Evans has the ability to keep you on his side even as he coldly sacrifices others so the movement can go on.
He's supported by an extraordinary cast. Jamie Bell is Edgar, young enough to know no life before the train, and fiercely loyal to Curtis. John Hurt brings gravitas to Gilliam, the grizzled veteran of past uprisings, but he also has a sense of playfulness you see in real revolutionaries but rarely in fictional ones. And Ed Harris' Wilford delivers a gripping monologue that is absolutely chilling because of how reasonable it is. But more than any of these (all of whom are brilliant), Tilda Swinton represents the opposite pole of Evans, the other towering performance that holds everything together. She's Mason, Wilford's bureaucratic envoy to the Tail, and she's like a more vicious Margaret Thatcher with way bigger teeth. Swinton plays Mason BROAD, not afraid to go big in affect and look, bringing a Terry Gilliam vibe to it all (you didn't think Hurt's character had that name coincidentally, did you?). She's simply amazing, and I loved watching her theatricality clash with Evans' naturalism.
The biggest star of the film must be Bong Joon-ho himself. The director makes his English language debut with Snowpiercer, and he doesn't miss a step coming over from South Korea. I've loved his films because of the way he plays with tone, and Snowpiercer is no different. The film careens from serious to silly, from philosophical to badass, from sad to hopeful. But it's never out of control; Bong knows what he wants to evoke from you in any given scene, and he builds to it and pays it off.
The film is smartly structured. The script by Bong and Kelly Masterson, based on a French comic, slowly reveals the nature of Snowpiercer as the revolutionaries make their way forward car by car. Each new car reveals a new piece of the story, and each car feels unique and fresh. The film opens in the steampunk filth of the Tail, which is what you see in most of the trailers, but the aesthetic changes with each step forward. The script also continously refigures the nature of the struggle with each new car, showing how the battle and ideology changes as the revolutionaries get farther and farther from their starting point.
Before I talk about the revolutionary politics of the film I must stop to praise the astonishing action filmmaking on display. Bong has a narrow train in which to set all of his action scenes, but every one feels totally different in tone and style from the previous. Some battles are chaotic skirmishes while some are heroic slomo tussles of titans. One spectacular sequence is set in total darkness against security forces equipped with night vision goggles while another shoot out takes place at curve in the tracks, allowing distant cars in the train to open fire on each other. Each of the action set pieces have specific goals and emotional struggles within them; each advances the story while also keeping you on the edge of your seat, adrenaline pumping through your veins as you cheer on a torch being run from the Tail to light the desperate battle in pitch blackness.
Each of these battles also represent steps in political liberation. Snowpiercer plays, for much of its running time, as an unapologetic cry for rebellion against the plutocrats that control our system. The world inside the train isn't much different from our own (and this will be a source of agita for nitpickers, who won't be able to deal with the allegoric nature of Snowpiercer and will fret about just where all those cows are being kept), and the inequality on display mirrors our own world. It's important to note that Snowpiercer the train traverses the Earth, and that Curtis' crew is deliberately multi-ethnic; Bong is speaking about the globe here, not just the plight of the disappearing middle class in America. This is a movie about the inequality that plagues humanity, and everybody reading this has to understand they're living towards the front of the train.
But the film ends up being more nuanced than that, and this is where I have to supply a spoiler warning. If you haven't seen Snowpiercer beware of going further, as I'm about to discuss the ending.
The train as a closed system is a vital piece of the allegory; as it is self-regulating the semi-regular violent spasms from the Tail are part of the regulation. In the end Curtis learns that he is just part of the system cleaning its own house. The film thus acts as a powerful rebuke of white savior stories, as the new boss will be essentially the same as the old boss. Curtis figures out that his winning is no win at all, it's simply a perpetuation of the perpetual motion machine that powers the inequality on Snowpiercer. Wilford has turned his Engine into a thing to be worshipped, but it's not entirely cynical. He himself has given his entire life to maintaining that Engine, because he believes in it so deeply. The Engine - capitalism, Western culture, name your obsession here - becomes more important than the people the Engine is supposed to be serving.
In the end it's Kang-ho Song, Bong's long-time leading man, who emerges as the true hero. While Curtis is the action hero who seizes the system, Song's Minsoo is a junkie who wants nothing more than to get out of it. His dream isn't to capture the Engine, it's to escape it. And while Wilford' propaganda says that there can be no life outside of Snowpiercer, Minsoo suspects otherwise. Snowpiercer comes to the same conclusion that many radical activists come to - you cannot harnass the system, you must destroy it and start over. The system will tell you that you can't live without it - it gives you everything you need, from protein bars to toxic drugs - but you can. It will be hard, but you can. It's an exciting message for a big budget movie, a true embracing of radical political ideas that reject comfort and ease.
Snowpiercer is a movie made almost specifically for me, but it's also a movie made with a level of mastery and intelligence that it's easily one of the best films of this - or any - year. Bong Joon-Ho is a genius, and he has made the best, most accessible and yet most challenging film of his career. You can enjoy Snowpiercer as an inventive, exciting action film or you can really dig in deep and explore the meanings and arguments that Bong has woven throughout, fine and subtle threads that elevate Snowpiercer to another level.