Hop aboard. You’ll be glad you did.
Despite how it may seem, Snowpiercer is not primarily a work of social commentary. Yes, the idea of fitting society’s social strata lengthwise into a series of train compartments – and having a rebel uprising attempt to fight its way from the symbolic caboose up to the equally symbolic engine room – seems obviously allegorical. Yes, the climax makes interesting if familiar points on the relationship between class, order, and civilization, and the movie’s hyperbolic characterization of rich vs. poor seems as relevant as ever. But this relevancy is not a reflection of the film’s engagement with contemporary society but rather a result of the fact that, as long as socioeconomic inequality exists in the world, tales like Snowpiercer‘s will always be relevant. The movie itself presents its ideas too broadly, too abstractly for the movie to be specifically about the 21st century moment. Even when the film winks at modern-day anxieties by setting its story during a global warming-induced ice age – the train’s passengers are the earth’s sole survivors – Snowpiercer’s sociopolitical musings are purely philosophical. They hold no practical weight for the here and now.
With that in mind, let us return to the film’s central conceit (or rather, the conceit of the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, on which the film was based): why a train? Why present the age-old class struggle horizontally rather than vertically as it usually is? The answer, I believe, is that the idea of such a train is awesome. Now, had commenting on class inequality been Snowpiercer’s foremost intention, the film would have done better with a vertical representation of society. Vertical is more conventional and straightforward; the movie’s message would have resonated clearer. Notice how, in the second sentence of this review, I use the word “uprising” to describe the rebellion. When we think of class, we think vertical. Even when describing a horizontal setting, we are still compelled to communicate in terms of high and low, upper and lower. As it is, the horizontality of the train brings absolutely nothing new to the discussion of interclass politics. If the film’s story had taken place in, say, an urban high rise instead of a train, it would have been possible for the movie to reach the same conclusion, albeit with some tweaks to the plot. If anything, the layout of the train distracts from the film’s sociopolitical subtext. How can we pay attention to the tired narrative of class conflict when there is so much novelty, so much innovation for us to absorb?
And there you have it. Snowpiercer, named after the train, is no political pulpit. It’s a museum of style, with each train car its own exhibit. And like a museum, the train’s horizontal arrangement allows us to stroll with the characters from one gallery to the next, appreciating the artwork on display. As the rebellion fights its way through the train, we are held in suspense, not just over what will happen next but what we’ll see and hear after the door leading to the next car opens. Will it be a steel prison that keeps its inmates in wall compartments like bodies in a morgue? Or a room full of axe-wielding thugs in ski masks who dip their blades in trout blood as a pre-war ritual? The surprises are endless, and with each step the insurgency takes toward the engine room, the film turns more surreal, more deliciously unhinged – at times, the visual aesthetic evokes the madcap genius of Stanley Kubrick and especially Terry Gilliam. I’ll say no more, for the bulk of the movie’s fun is in encountering the unexpected. Just know that Snowpiercer is no ordinary train, and this is no ordinary movie.
Or maybe I’ll say just one more thing about the axe scene, which encapsulates director Bong Joon-ho’s mastery of the horror-comedy divide. Few films know how to transition smoothly from true gravity to true hilarity. Typical efforts often seem forced, resulting in the film appearing either self-referential or downright bad. In this regard, Bong’s pictures are anomalies. Along with Memories of Murder, The Host, and Mother, Snowpiercer makes wild leaps in tone that are surprisingly – amazingly – palatable. I’m not quite sure how he does it. Perhaps, even in the darkest moments, Bong includes a hint of farce – whether in his characters’ mannerisms or in the subtly absurdist art direction – enough so that, when the comedy hits, we are already primed to laugh. But because the overarching context remains grim, perhaps the movement from humor back to horror is just as natural. Perhaps all this occurs unconsciously. Consciously, I am aware of how crazy the movie’s shifts in tone are, and yet they seldom feel disjointed. And so it is with the axe scene, one of the film’s best because it spans the gamut of emotion without being irresponsibly sensational. Opening on a note of terror that makes your blood run cold, the scene turns into a 300-style bloodbath before arriving at the funniest moment in the entire movie. Then the violence resurfaces, culminating in heart-stopping tragedy.
And this flexibility of tone persists throughout the entirety of Snowpiercer, a movie that may resemble a standard issue dystopian actioner on paper but is something gloriously more. It’s a film that makes you feel; a movie that is less about its ideas, which have been discussed and debated for eons, than the martial spirit of comrades in arms. It’s about laughing and gasping and sitting in a state of quiet devastation as something you didn’t think would happen happens. It’s about creating new experiences, sights we’ve never seen before, or a sequence of emotions we’ve never felt in that particular order. It’s a film whose dystopian setting has two distinct effects. On the one hand, the tropes of the well-worn subgenre offer a dash of familiarity that makes us care about the fates of the characters. There are certain formulas that, given an admirable execution, never fail to rouse us – the fight for freedom from oppression fits the bill better than any. On the other hand, since cinematic dystopias have traditionally been as much about world building as commenting on society, the gloomy doomy future of Snowpiercer allows Bong to let loose creatively, and the result is joyous in a way that feels anything but dystopic. Brought together, these two effects produce in the film a third, joint effect – the possibility of introducing the film’s dazzling style to a wider audience via the accessibility of formula. And an even wider audience than that, because Snowpiercer is Bong’s first American feature, meaning he has the attention of both U.S. and Asian markets. Good thing too, because a film this exciting and a director this brilliant deserve to circumnavigate the globe.