As was the case with Luc Besson’s most recent release Lucy, a considerable suspension of disbelief is required to secure maximum enjoyment from Snowpiercer, the first English-language offering from Korean director Joon-ho Bong. The latest in a seemingly endless reserve of post-apocalyptic narratives, Snowpiercer is a rollicking good ride for most of its duration, even if doesn’t make a lick of sense. Arriving in cinemas as one of the most anticipated releases of the year – partly because of Bong’s excellent previous work, but mostly because of a very public disagreement between the director and Harvey Weinstein – it was always unlikely the film could live up to the hype and scrutiny that preceded it. However, if we cast such controversies – and any expectations we may have as a result – to one side and evaluate the film purely on the version (vision?) presented, there is plenty to like amid the claustrophobic chaos of a story set entirely on a train; albeit a train like nothing we have ever seen before.
In a not-too-distant future in the aftermath of a failed climate change experiment that has left the entire planet frozen and uninhabitable, all of the remaining human population live on the Snowpiercer, a high-speed train that travels perpetually around the globe. The world within the train is one of extremes; a not-too-subtle allegory of the world as it is today. There is a huge disparity between the conditions of the poor – ensconced in the most crowded conditions at the back of the train – and the luxuriously decadent lifestyle of those who occupy the front carriages. In a series of events that replicate the myriad social and political uprisings that have taken place around the world in recent years, the downtrodden, led somewhat reluctantly by Curtis (Chris Evans), set forth on a mission in search of freedom and equality. There is violence aplenty us they make their way through the myriad carriages that house all manner of wonderments, from nightclubs to beauty salons to vegetable gardens to an elaborate Underwater World-like aquarium.
Evans is surrounded by an all-star cast, many of whom meet their maker quite early in the piece. In fact several of them, such as Tilda Swinton, John Hurt and Ed Harris, seem to rehashing elements of characters from previous roles. Following her recent turns in The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Zero Theorom, Swinton continues her penchant for bizarre characters and physical transformations as Mason, a gutless sycophant who does the bidding of Wilford, the dictator who controls everything that happens on the train. In Wilford, Harris revisits his role as Christof in The Truman Show, a man who also manipulated the behaviours and experiences of others with impunity and without their knowledge. As Gillam, the patriarch of the poor to whom Curtis defers, Hurt presents as such an amalgam of numerous previous roles – from 1984’s Winston Smith to Jellon Lamb from The Proposition and many more besides – that it is hard to separate this character from the others. Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer and Ewen Bremner feature as Curtis’ comrades-in-arms, while Korean actors Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko also join the uprising, albeit begrudgingly, teaming as father and daughter once again for Bong after assuming the same relationship in his previous film The Host.
Some of the action sequences are fabulous as the confined spaces and the unique environment within each of the carriages ensure plenty of close combat. The initial escape from the back carriage is ingenious while a particularly bloody battle in complete darkness is also very impressive. Of course, there are myriad over-the-top moments that leave you scratching your head with incredulity, such as when Curtis and Franco (Vlad Ivanov) engage in a shootout from opposing carriages as the train winds around a corner. The worlds created by cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong and production designer Ondrej Nekvasil, both inside and outside the train, are suitably bleak but, as was the case with his superior The Host, Bong infuses moments of humour throughout the action that, thankfully, prevent the film from taking itself too seriously. If all the pre-release argy-bargy was, as some have suggested, simply a tactic to generate interest, it is a shame because Snowpiercer deserves an audience on its merits. This is a political allegory that is somewhat Orwellian in nature, coated with lashings of action set pieces that, although lacking in logic at times, are damn good fun all the same.