When we think of a sociopolitical or economic hierarchy the concept is a vertical one. The powerful sit atop their ivory towers while Garth Brooks and his friends in low places vie for scraps, powerless in the muck and mire below. Director Bong Joon-Ho’s new film Snowpiercer, based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceniege, takes the traditional verticality of the social ladder and knocks it over, mapping out political power on a horizontal plane and positing that political power itself is the ability to create or contain forward momentum.
In Snowpiercer the world’s haphazard attempts to thwart global warming result in a global disaster on the opposite end of the spectrum that leaves the planet one giant ball of uninhabitable ice. A stone cold bummer unless you happen to be one of the few remnants of humanity aboard the titular globe-trotting, perpetual-motion dystopia train.
Captain America and his friends are crammed like sardines into the rear car of the train while Tilda Swinton and all of her unbearable one-percenters gallivant about the front tanning, raving and denying the futility of the train’s trickle-back economics.
But for all the sci-fi backstory involved, Snowpiercer is a film about revolution and the fight for that aforementioned political power, momentum. Those at the front attest that all of the passengers have it simply by virtue of being a denizen of the train itself, a mechanical embodiment of the relativity of empowerment. After all what better source of momentum than a perpetual motion engine, always moving forward? And what more crippling source of stagnation than the entire frozen outside world the train protects them all from?
But Captain America and those in the back of the train who get their nutrients from questionable, gelatinous protein bars see the momentum of the train for the illusion it is and are willing to fight and die for a taste of true empowerment.
Snowpiercer is at its best when it paints revolution as a gauntlet, the revolutionaries pressing ever onward through threat after threat toward their ultimate goal – the engine. But, much like the revolutionaries themselves, the film loses its power when it slows its momentum to make pit stops for anyone who hasn’t fully grasped its political implications to hop aboard.
It’s a wonderfully intelligent film but it’s preoccupied with a misplaced concern that it’s too smart for the viewer. It takes great, unnecessary pains to explain itself and while it never condescends to the audience, more often than not these pains are to the film’s detriment.
Certain expository scenes linger far too long and some ideas, particularly one character’s clairvoyance, almost seem like they were thrown in accidentally and forgotten about. Additionally, Tilda Swinton’s character is insufferable in every conceivable way. She’s an antagonist, fair enough. But my resentment for the character had nothing to do with her social discrimination and everything to do with the fact that in a bleak dystopian world she comes off like a slapstick cartoon character.
But when Snowpiercer is firing on all cylinders it is one hell of a locomotive. The action sequences are by and large fantastic and seeing Chris Evans and Octavia Spencer busting skulls next to each other with equal power and vigor is a thing of beauty. Couple that action with the poignant, thought-provoking ideas Snowpiercer puts forth, particularly in its final act, and film’s likely to please more than just science fiction fans.
For what short comings it had I didn’t leave Snowpiercer preoccupied with nitpicking. I left it terrified that I’ve been on a train all this time and I’m sitting still.
1. Have you ever been on a train?
2. Have you ever been on a train where there have been one or more snakes?
3. Would you say you’d had it with those snakes on that train?
4. Is their hope for our children or is the political landscape of the modern world too far gone to repair, damning us all to lives of oppressors and the oppressed?