All Aboard for Class War!

Snowpiercer Is a Great Sci-Fi Film—Political, Beautiful, and Totally Committed

All Aboard for Class War!

SNOWPIERCER Starring Tilda Swinton and a perpetual-motion machine.

What is it about trains and class warfare in science fiction? Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, about a railroad magnate who joins the rest of the 1 percent on a strike to protest the 99 percent's whining about income inequality, has a chugging train at its heart—Rand points to trains as a symbol of everything humanity can aspire to be. Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer takes its name from the futuristic super-train in which everyone left on earth lives—the film introduces the train as the "rattling ark" that's keeping humanity alive. This train, too, represents a kind of Randian dream: In the middle of the 21st century, the grubby masses are forced to live in the rear cars, in near-darkness and the filth that comes from putting too many humans in a too-small box. The wealthy few live in the luxurious, sprawling cars at the front, and the 99 percent are kept in line with threats, reminders that things are exactly as they should be, and an imposing cadre of armed, paramilitary types.

This world died not with global warming, but in ice; a last-ditch effort to curb rising temperatures with an airborne cooling agent called CW7 resulted in the entire world freezing to inhospitable temperatures (CW7 must be a close cousin to Ice-nine from Kurt Vonnegut's novel Cat's Cradle). Only the Snowpiercer, a perpetual-motion machine of a train on tracks that stretch across the entire world, survives. It's a lunatic premise, but Snowpiercer manages to get everything exactly right. This is a world-class science fiction movie, an ambitious, overstuffed epic that will influence young directors for years to come.

The secret to Snowpiercer's success? In a word: commitment. Bong treats the premise with the same respect that he gave to his incredible 2006 creature feature The Host. Not every director could make a movie that takes place entirely in the rectangular boxes of a train and still make that film visually interesting all the way through. The early scenes are so dark that you'll have to squint to make out the action, but as the huddled masses work their way to the front of the train through remarkable acts of violence, each new car develops its own visual palette, a kind of Dante's Inferno—or is it more Wizard of Oz?—quest through the strata of society.

The cast follows Bong's lead. Chris Evans, as Curtis, plans the uprising and serves as the Captain America–like spearhead for the assault on the wealthy, but he also harbors some ugly darkness. Tilda Swinton's Mason is the mouthpiece of the 1 percent, the person in the unenviable position of telling the poor people at the back of the car that they're required to eat nothing but nauseating gelatinous protein bars because the universe wants rich people to eat steak. She plays Mason as impossibly broad, a living, sniveling cartoon, but somehow through the layers of makeup and false teeth making her face into a caricature, and her Thatcherian Yorkshire accent, she helps make everything around her more realistic.

Many critics will probably intend to praise Snowpiercer by saying that it doesn't beat its viewers over their heads with its politics. Those critics are wrong; this is an entirely political movie. Though it's based on a French comic book from the 1980s, Snowpiercer is entirely about class war, and income inequality, and all the most pressing political issues of our time. This train is chugging down the same tracks as Atlas Shrugged, but in the opposite direction. One day, the two are going to collide. recommended

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Comments (14) RSS

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delirian 1
I wonder if Kim Jong Un's train is like this.
Posted by delirian on June 28, 2014 at 4:43 PM · Report this
There's a Gene Wolfe short story that is related to this. 'On the train' originally in the New Yorker, later in his Best of... Collection.
Posted by Jude Fawley on June 28, 2014 at 8:07 PM · Report this
Gurldoggie 3
Man. I saw this movie tonight based on your recommendation, and I'm very sorry that I did. This movie was all kinds of stupid. Nothing made any sense at all. Why are there so many super rich getting their hair done and dancing at raves, and so relatively few poor? On a planet where nothing except a train exists, where did their riches even come from? From trading the drug which is supposed to be so precious, and yet is lying around in great piles for the taking? Who was that Terminator guy leading the 20 minute fight scenes? How come the well-armed security forces suddenly ceased to exist? And why the hell did Ed Harris keep blabbing on and on and on and on? I thought I was going to fall asleep.

I find that you generally have good taste – even in B- movies – but man were you wrong on this one. Commitment shmomitment. Thumbs down for Snowpiercer.
Posted by Gurldoggie on June 29, 2014 at 1:30 AM · Report this
I sadly have to agree, at least in spirit, with @1. My boyfriend and I were both excited to see this film based on the crazy amounts of hype and good press it had been receiving all over the place. I mean Tilda Swinton alone made us super excited! But then we downloaded it. And we watched it. And while my boyfriend thought it was a fun, campy (if poorly written and acted) mess I was just flabbergasted by the quality level of this movie in contrast to the praise that was being showered over it.

The writing was D-level here. Seriously. Every time anyone opened their mouth it felt like it was written by aliens trying to mimic our speech patterns. And while that worked for Tilda's crazy loon of a character (which was the only real highlight of the film for me) for everyone else it just came off as really, really bad writing. And the story? Really? I honestly need to blame the source material for this mess. Though there has to be blame placed upon the director for choosing said material I suppose. I liken it, in a sense, to another train book-to-movie: The Polar Express. Both are books whose stylized art and sequential nature allowed for such a heavy-handed, poorly thought-out, ultimately ridiculous plot without the reader constantly going "but how is any of this making any sense?!" In the case of the polar express it had a whimsy, and it's lack of dialogue and general plot, coupled with the softness found in the use of pastels for its art made for the perfect children's dream. For snow piercer, the art and obvious stylization and comic nature leant to the idea that this wasn't MEANT to depict a possible future reality but more of a fable- a cautionary tale that takes extreme liberties of what we know to be how basic science and logic works. Both of these stories also fall apart COMPLETELY when you then take those origins and attempt to translate them into something they are not- something far more "real" (in Snowpiercer's case live-action, in Polar Express's case a hideous motion-captured uncanny valley). And yet while I despised what they did to PS- I found Snowpiercer to be much more insulting to my intelligence because it appeared to be attempting to form a message about society or human nature or something that, when depicted with live actors and real sets, ends up sounding like it was written by a twelve-year-old with ADD. Nothing about the story, the characters, their motivations or the general setting and situation stood up to the kind of scrutiny that a live-action movie allows for. And it's tonal and logical mistakes only caused me to be so completely driven from the movie that by the end I laughed out loud at what I think was supposed to be a meaningful moment and a tragic scene.

In short this just baffled me how anyone could call this a "good," let alone "great" film. It was a mess with good sets, great actors, and a lot of effort that culminated in a really, really bad (poorly written and acted) movie where characters are oddly given screen time and built up for what appears to be no reason and the final conclusion feels just completely dumb. This was a futuristic dystopia written by an idiot and no manner of budget or cast could save that.
Posted by AedanCRoberts on June 29, 2014 at 6:11 AM · Report this
Woops- I meant @3. I agree in spirit with @3
Posted by AedanCRoberts on June 29, 2014 at 6:12 AM · Report this
Puckerd Poop Chute 6
This reviewer must have been doing some great drugs before seeing this movie. It's ok. I dropped some acid before seeing Passenger 57 and thought the movie was all kinds of awesome. I thought this movie was all kind s of terrible
Posted by Puckerd Poop Chute on June 29, 2014 at 12:53 PM · Report this
The movie is ludicrous, but a fun sort of ludicrous. I would compare parts of it to the movie Brazil, other parts to the film adaptation of 1984 and then throw in some elements from 12 Monkeys. It comes off as a little disjointed and the premise demands a biblical amount of suspension of disbelief, but I found the acting and direction to be mostly competent. The set design and photography are absolutely first rate.
Sure, its not the best movie ever, but its not nearly as bad 3 and 4 make it sound. Judged strictly against its genre, I would give it a B-.
And I wasn't on acid. Hell, I wasn't even stoned.
Posted by Pol Pot on June 29, 2014 at 5:47 PM · Report this
Not to split hairs, but how is Atlas Shrugged science fiction? Do tell. Doesn't science fiction have to deal with imagined other worlds, or imagined other social structures/ technologies? There is nothing in Atlas Shrugged that isn't our world expect the individual people, who are ridiculously unreal personifications of Ayn Rand's dumb-ass social philosophy. Does this make it sci-fi? If it's genre fiction at all it's some sort of proto-neoliberal s&m Romance. She gets human nature so wrong that it seems like she's describing another world, but I think she's actually trying to describe ours. God I hate her so much.
Posted by emmaz on June 29, 2014 at 10:10 PM · Report this
I'm with the other commenters. This movie was ok, at best, and I subscribe wholeheartedly to damning by faint praise. The message is heavy handed, and often silly (while not intending to be silly, which is the worst kind of silly). The "won't anyone think of the children??" moments are just too much. The shooting the bullets through windows at opposite train cars around a corner was just plain stupid. Unrefined, unbalanced, anime-esk weirdness, masquerading as refinement, social commentary, and modern film making. Rent this movie, or better yet stream it online, and get stoned before you watch it.
Posted by ace9415 on June 30, 2014 at 5:20 AM · Report this
What is the reasoning for why the entire population of the planet is on a train?

What prevents humans from not living on the train?
Posted by LJM on June 30, 2014 at 12:29 PM · Report this
Best sci-fi movie I've seen since Moon (or Children of Men). Intriguing ending too.
Posted by Ansel Herz on July 1, 2014 at 12:25 AM · Report this
reverend dr dj riz 12
sawr it.
Posted by reverend dr dj riz on July 12, 2014 at 12:57 AM · Report this
All negative comments are coming from intellectually challenged people that don't understand a metaphore and what this movie represents.
All of you that are watching , you now belong in one of those those train "classes"...
There was even a comment about " why weren't people allowed to leave the train"...go figure what a dumb audience this movie had...
The movie was excellent, brilliant! ...a realistic portrait of our society, dark side....and where it could end if something or somebody doesn't stop this engine.
Posted by Smarter than u! on July 13, 2014 at 9:54 AM · Report this
All negative comments are coming from intellectually challenged people that don't understand a metaphore and what this movie represents.
All of you that are watching , you now belong in one of those those train "classes"...
There was even a comment about " why weren't people allowed to leave the train"...go figure what a dumb audience this movie had...
The movie was excellent, brilliant! ...a realistic portrait of our society and it's dark side....and where it could end if something or somebody doesn't stop this engine.
Posted by Smarter than u! on July 13, 2014 at 9:58 AM · Report this

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