Although the titular train is forward-moving, “Snowpiercer” (2014) is a story told in reverse. Instead of learning the rules of the world up front and then following a story, we are thrown into the story and gradually pick up rules of the world. This format puts the onus on the screenplay by Bong Joon Ho and Kelly Masterson to deliver a great payoff, and it doesn’t succeed. Other turnoffs are the slow and outright boring pacing from director Bong, making the film seem pretentious, and obviously CGI train effects, which reveal where the movie saved money.
The concept — drawn from a French graphic novel — is like if “Divergent” or the other 2010s dystopias played out on a perpetually moving train. In a near future where world leaders’ plan to cool the globe ends up freezing it, the only human survivors are on this train that goes around the world; the engine provides both movement and heating.
Those in the tail section live in squalor. Chris Evans, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, Ko Asung and “Parasite’s” Kang-ho Song act with the gravitas of a better film as we see the various indignities and cruelties the military ruling class push on the Tailies. For example, punishment for revolt is the loss of an arm. The arm is stuck out a port for 7 minutes, causing it to freeze solid.
As Evans’ Curtis leads a revolt that takes the revolutionaries car-by-car toward the engine, we learn about the governmental system, very slowly. Tilda Swinton gives the best performance as Mason, an underling of the ruling class who has such a pathetic mental block to the lifestyle of the destitute class that it’s hard to hate her.
As we learn about the societal structure, we get equal helpings of interesting revelations and logic holes. The scene in the car led by the Teacher (Alison Pill) is a visual reprieve as we see the colors of a grade-school classroom and she teaches her charges the appropriate propaganda.
There are a few hundred people on the train, roughly the minimum number to restart the human race if the Earth warms up enough, but we don’t see all the cars necessary to support this society. For example, we don’t see military barracks and supply, farm animals, bathrooms, showers or ruling-class living quarters. In most movies, this would not matter because we could imagine those things are off-screen, but since the car-by-car progression is the point of “Snowpiercer,” these are holes.
Obviously, Bong is commenting on class, something he would do with more subtlety and realism in “Parasite” (2019), which is gripping in every way this film is boring. Here, the rulers say things like “Everyone has their place” and “closed ecosystem.” “Snowpiercer” spends its time explaining the governmental system that was obvious from the opening scene of squalor – which might be OK except it’s neither a complete portrayal nor a surprising one.
Because of the “missing” cars, the train is more of a metaphor for a communist state than a strict communist state. And there’s a point amid Curtis’ march toward the engine when the film moves into “Mother!” (2017) territory, wherein everything is a metaphor, not to be taken literally. The fighting armies stop to say “Happy new year!” when the train goes over a bridge that marks the 18th year of the post-apocalyptic journey.
I thought perhaps “Snowpiercer” is saying something about the bizarrely predictable cycle of human behavior, but then it gets back to more straightforward storytelling – although it’s certainly surreal as the rebels march through cars that serve as nightclubs, spas and high-class drug dens.
When the rulers say it’s no picnic being in their shoes either, Curtis’ logical and appropriate response is to laugh; their daily lives are obviously more pleasant than those of the Tailies. However, the point isn’t totally invalid, because a train – even one with a constantly replenishing ecosystem — is no place to live in a spiritual sense. Spending 18 years there seems like hell. Even 2 hours and 6 minutes is too much.