Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-Ho, 2013)
Wildly inventive, raucously bloody, and entertaining as hell, renowned Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s (Memories of Murder, The Host, and Mother) first English-language film Snowpiercer is a masterpiece. Macabre, drily witty, crammed with beautifully realised action set pieces and simply stunning to look at, it’s a dystopic phantasmagoria. Golden era Gilliam meets grimy Jeunet by way of the Wizard of Oz, with a fuck-load of Bong’s signature magic mixed in for good measure.
Set 17 years post-apocalypse (an experiment designed to counteract global warming goes horribly awry, leaving the Earth a frozen wasteland), mankind’s few survivors are all sheltered on an enormous train, endlessly rattling around the frozen remains of the earth. It’s powered by a mythical perpetual engine, revered almost as much as its renowned creator Wilford.
The survivors have settled into a rigorously enforced caste system. The “tail” of the train host to those who live in grimy deprivation: conditions are squalid, children are periodically wrestled off to an unknown fate by masked enforcers, rebels are divested of their limbs and the only food is a black gelatinous anonymous protein bar. The “head” of the train is purportedly home to Wilford. Tail-dwelling have-not Curtis Everitt (Chris Evans, in a charismatic turn) leads an unlikely bunch of insurgents on a mission to the train’s head to overturn the unseen leader. Jamie Bell’s on board as his protege, Edgar, while wily mentor duty is ably filled by John Hurt. Both Octavia Spencer and Ewen Bremner are parents in search of their respective abducted children, the former clear eyed and determined, the latter wild and incensed. Cooler than cooler than cooler, Bong regular Kang-Ho Song is Namgoong Minsu, a security expert who trades lock-picking expertise for a toxic drug called Kronole to fuel him and his daughter’s reveries. In addition to masked militia, they’re up against Mason, the jingoistic face of the elite played with grotesque relish by Tilda Swinton. She sports false teeth so huge they’d make a beaver blush and the thickest of Yorkshire accents. She is utterly hateful, and utterly hilarious.
As they battle forward the train evolves from grimy deprivation to ecological wonderlands to the orgiastic decadence of those who live in the ‘head’ – all drug dens and ceaseless raves. Each carriage is exquisitely detailed, with sumptuous set design, creative props and brilliant costumery, and the surrounding snowscape the train rattles through is perfectly realised. A visual feast. When the blood comes – and come it does, in a succession of innovative and crystalline setpieces – it’s thrilling and beautiful in equal measure.
It’s allegory, certainly, a scabrous look at capitalist society, but it wears its satire lightly and never lets moralising get in the way of the story’s propulsive action. Adapted from the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, an intelligent script (co-penned by Bong & Kelly Masterston) ensures all the characters are drawn with convincing moral complexity – even the most loathsome travellers are allowed to make a few salient points. In particular, the hero Everritt is shaded with so much grey there’s little white left, and Evans depicts his inner turmoil deftly, particularly in a stunning second act monologue about the early days post apocalypse.
Wondrously aware of both its science fiction and cinematic antecedents, Snowpiercer manages to be entirely its own work: bold, unpredictable, and, finally, unexpectedly moving. The Swinton character’s constant refrain is “so it is” which is redolent of science fiction doyen Kurt Vonnegut. He’d dig this film. It’s bloody marvellous.