After seeing the difficulties his countrymen had with their own English language debuts – Kim Jee-woon's reviled Schwarzenegger vehicle The Last Stand and Park Chan-wook's divisive Stoker (fine direction, lousy script) – it's no wonder why Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho fought his American distributor Harvey Weinstein for a full year in order to retain final cut over this, his own English debut.
Was it worth the fight? Well, of course. Bong is a master filmmaker and his vision shouldn't be shredded by Harvey Scissorhands. That said, I am not lining up with all the other folks who are praising this film as a masterpiece.
Snowpiercer begins with a wonderfully arch conceit: To fight global warming, the nations of the world spread a chemical through the sky. That chemical accidentally winds up freezing the world, killing almost all life in a rapid amount of time. All this goes down, apparently, on July 1, 2014. (Alas, I actually saw the film on July 2, 2014, thereby missing out on a nice semi-freakout opportunity.)
That's all spelled out in the opening credits. The actual plot unfolds 17 years later. All that remains of humanity – perhaps just one or two thousand souls; it's never made explicit – is stuck on a gigantic train that travels in an endless circle, each revolution taking exactly 365 days.
As per other dystopian movies like The Hunger Games and Elysium, the wealthy ride in luxurious comfort in the first class cabins at the head of the train, while the poor are stuck in filthy cattle cars in the back. Not long into the story, we learn that those poor passengers, led by Chris Evans and guided by John Hurt, are plotting revolt. The next two hours document the events of this days-long siege.
Unlike The Hunger Games and Elysium, which invent convincing geographical barriers between rich and poor, the very fact that all this takes place on one giant train begs to be taken as a metaphor. There are far too many details that can't possibly be accepted as "reality", even in a sci fi setting. (For example: the rich feast on steak and chicken, and in fact we see a car filled with fresh raw meat, but where do the cows and chickens come from? And what do they eat? Are we just supposed to accept that there are several cars that contain fertile pasture land, even though they're never shown? Etc.) But the metaphors aren't clear. Is Snowpiercer about the cyclical nature of revolution? Is it about whether humanity deserves to be saved? Or is it just about, "Wouldn't it be cool to have this all take place on a train?" (The film is very loosely based on a 1982 French graphic novel.)
Snowpiercer looks fantastic. The action, quite grisly at times, is breathtakingly staged, and the production design is Oscar-worthy. Evans is his usual likable-if-bland self; Tilda Swinton, as an emissary for the mysterious man who runs the train, is hilariously eccentric. (Her loopy performance further sheds doubt on how seriously the film is to be taken.) There's a genuine sense of nihilism at play here. To call the film "Gilliam-esque" wouldn't be wrong; the John Hurt character is even named Gilliam.
There's a lot to like about Snowpiercer, and I can see how the film will gain a strong following, much in the same way that 1998's Dark City (a film I did not like) has. It is visionary. But in the end, I just can't get behind it.
As usual, it's the story, stupid. I've seen this plot structure too many times: Once it's established that the characters' goal is to make it to the front of the train and overtake the engineer – one "Wilford", who also designed the train and set up its class system – you can guess that one of two things will happen in the third act: either they will find Wilford, who will explain everything in a long, pretentious monologue, or "Wilford" will turn out to be some sort of hoax. I won't tell you which of these two paths Bong and cowriter Kelly Masterson take, but I will say that I wish they had come up with a third one.