Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-Ho, 2013)
Several years into the future, the earth is engulfed by ice caused by humanity attempting to reverse the effects of global warming. Except for the passengers aboard a train that perpetually chugs along a route that spans the entire world, everybody else has frozen to death. The world, as a result, has been shrunk within the confines of a luxury train.
Cinema has always maintained its love affair with trains since it utilized a steam engine rampaging towards the unsuspecting audience as the prime spectacle in The Great Train Robbery in 1903. With strangers forced to interact and socialize within limited spaces, the cramped and claustrophobic interiors of trains become apt stages for suspense and mystery, as with Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers in a Train in 1951 or the many adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Orient Express.
In 1964, John Frankenheimer, acknowledging the potential of the locomotive to evoke excitement and urgency, released The Train where Burt Lancaster attempts to save art treasures from the greedy clutches of the Nazis. Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express, set on an express train from Beijing to Shanghai, envelopes its sordid tale with the exoticism of travel. In 2005, Tickets, featuring three episodes directed by Abbas Kiarostami, Ken Loach and Ermanno Olmi, emphasized the social stratification that is part and parcel of travelling by train.
With Snowpiercer, which is based on the graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Bong exposes the same fascination with trains that has consumed the many filmmakers that preceded him. The film, which concerns itself largely with the oppressive social divide that was created supposedly for the survival of the last remaining human beings that exist inside the train, has Curtis (Chris Evans), a resident of the unfortunate tail section of the train, spearheading a revolution to reach the engine where the train’s creator, the mysterious Wilford (Ed Harris), lives.
At once, Bong capitalizes on the innate inequity of the class structure that train travel subsists on. The first class passengers will eat steak and have all the amenities their first class existence naturally provides them. The passengers in the tail end, stowaways whose lives are owed supposedly to the generosity of the first class passengers, will have to satisfy themselves with dregs.
Bong begins with the concept, before enlarging it as his characters move forward, discovering that humanity does not revolve around the injustice they personally suffer but also about structures, norms and measures that have become necessary for both survival and the containment of the evils humanity is capable of. By the end of the film, inequity becomes the least of humanity’s problems, as humanity bares its fundamental monstrosity. The stakes cascade and the lines blur as the plot thickens.
Snowpiercer however is a lot more fun than it sounds. Not only does Bong capitalize on themes that are readily available because of his use of the train as a centerpiece to his tale, he also capitalizes on the physical traits of the train to create a more visceral viewing experience. He understands the mechanics of the train’s narrow space. He himself limits his camera within the finite borders of the train, and creates action sequences that have realistic depth. The brutality that bolsters the film’s themes is therefore more palpable with bodies being hacked and abused within close distances.
The perpetual movement of the train also plays a big role in Bong’s well-orchestrated spectacle. The film follows the incessant rhythm and velocity of the vehicle as it avoids being stalled unnecessarily. Even its lengthy expositions are accompanied by wit and absurd pageantry, as exemplified by Tilda Swinton’s histrionic portrayal of a high-ranking bully. Snowpiercer is precise in its intent to primarily entertain and exhilarate despite its fluent observations on the human condition.
Snowpiercer is loud and brazen. It is consistently hilarious, yet at the same time, it also never fails to inflict fear, suspense or sentiment whenever it needs to do so. Snowpiercer is Bong’s outrageous ode to trains, to their power that have always fascinated us, and to everything else they can ever represent. This is also his tribute to cinema, which has the power to turn the lowly and hardworking train into an emblem for how humanity has remained woefully unchanged despite its years of persistent existence.