Reviewed by: Sophie Charlotte Rieger

"The mix of action and satire also turns it into an absorbing hell of a ride."

Bong Joon-ho is not exactly known for his feel-good movies, so we shouldn’t be suprised that his most recent directorial work, Snowpiercer, presents a disturbing vision of the near future. The story, about a train racing around the world and carrying what’s left of humanity, displays telling similarities with quite a few recent sci-fi movies. Are we really that worried about our future?

In the attempt to fight global warming, mankind has brought upon itself another ice age. A train has been the last resort for a small selection of people. While the rich and beautiful inhabit most of it, the carriages at the back are reserved for the penniless mob. For the past 17 years they have been living under the oppression of the upper class, being victims of torture, kidnappings and haphazard killings. But now a resistance is forming. Curtis (Chris Evans) is no longer willing to live under these inhumane conditions. Under the leadership of his mentor and friend Gilliam (John Hurt), he fights his way to the front to take over the train, his determination nourished by the thirst for revenge. But the truths he unravels on his way, challenge his last ray of hope.

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While the snow-white world flying past is just as peaceful as it is innocent, the setting of the story in the rear carriages is dark and filthy. People are malnourished and dirty, living in constant fear of the brutal officers who abuse them and take their kids away. The little ones have never seen the light of day and refer to their world as “the whole wide train”. Probably to counter this extremely pessimistic vision, Bong includes humorous elements. First of all it is Tilda Swinton as the quirky minister Mason, member and representative of the upper class, who breaks with the dark realism of the setting by obviously embodying some kind of caricature. As Curtis and the resistance move a long the train, the story increasingly involves satirical elements. In addition, it becomes more and more obvious that the whole idea of humanity living and sustaining itself on a moving train is nothing more than an abstract idea that is not supposed to be questioned in terms of its plausibility. Humour and caricature are absolutely necessary to ensure the entertainment factor of this otherwise deeply depressing movie. The same is true for the blatant violence of the concept. Snowpiercer is more of an action movie than well-thought-out science fiction, with an abundance of unlikely fighting scenes. It is as if Bong wants to constantly remind us that this is “just a movie”.

But it is not. Though most of us have probably never seen a movie about a train that preserves humanity in the face of an apocalyptic natural disaster, Snowpiercer feels oddly familiar. The oppression and abuse of the poor mirrors what we have seen in totalitarian societies in other recent science fiction movies. The strict separation of the rich and poor and their corresponding living spheres can be found in Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium while the excessive lifestyle of the upper class in contrast to the humble living conditions of the poor reminds us of The Hunger Games and its caste system.

These are just two of the many allusions and cinematic intertextualities that Snowpiercer has to offer. Nevertheless the movie doesn’t feel like a mosaic display of what has been done before. The setting in the train is still quite original and captures and holds the viewers’ interest. But within that innovative narrative frame there is a well-known core message. It is the increasing gap between the rich and the poor that seems to be our biggest fear, for it is presented in different ways over and over again in the movies of today. It is not so much natural disaster that we are afraid of but the danger of losing our humanity while slipping into a totalitarian “two-caste” system, step by step and unconsciously. Maybe we are already there.

But what to do about it? It might be the movie's major flaw to be unclear about the indicated solution. Snowpiercer can be read not only as a critique of an unjust political system but also as a critique of the Christian faith. The ideology beyond the caste system of the train is based on man’s original sin, his inability to be good. He allegedly needs to be controlled by a God or a God-like being in order to survive. The train, explicitly described as an “ark”, presents a deeply perverted version of Noah’s attempt to preserve life on the planet. Unfortunately, Snowpiercer doesn’t offer us an alternative to the religious ideology it obviously despises. On the contrary, Some of its elements seem even to support Christian beliefs, for example the appreciation of sacrifice as man’s greatest virtue or the cleansing effect of the apocalyptic scenario itself.

By showing us what can be read as a major problem of our world today while withholding a solution to that problem, Snowpiercer could be an incredibly depressing movie. Fortunately it isn’t. It is disconcerting. That’s for sure. But the mix of action and satire also turns it into an absorbing hell of a ride.

Reviewed on: 31 Jan 2014
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In a future where a failed global-warming experiment kills off most life on the planet, a class system evolves aboard the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe via a perpetual-motion engine.

Director: Bong Joon Ho

Writer: Bong Joon Ho, Kelly Masterson, based on the story by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, Jean-Marc Rochette

Starring: Tilda Swinton, Chris Evans, Luke Pasqualino, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Alison Pill, Ed Harris, Ewen Bremner, Song Kang-ho, Kenny Doughty, Steve Park, Adnan Haskovic, Clark Middleton, Tómas Lemarquis

Year: 2013

Runtime: 126 minutes

Country: South Korea, US, France

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