The animated prequel to Snowpiercer. Movies #8 and 9 were Possession (Neil LaBute, 2002) and Conversations With Other Women, our Aaron Eckhart film festival at home.
While Snowpiercer, the science-fiction action movie adapted by Bong Joon-ho from the French comic book Le Transperceneige by Lob and Rochette, awaits a release date in the US—producer Harvey Weinstein is reportedly holding the film hostage until it is cut and voiceovers added (presumably so the slowest audience members can grasp what is unfolding onscreen)—it has quietly turned up in local cinemas. We caught it yesterday, opening day: an excellent decision because it means We Can Watch It Again.
Snowpiercer is Marxist theory as thrilling pop cinema, adapted by a Korean director with a flair for action and economical storytelling, and powered by terrific performances by Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton and the whole company.
Snowpiercer makes us want to resume long-abandoned French lessons so we can read the comic book in the original, because if this is the adaptation, the source must be wonderful. French comic books sound amazing (Blue is the Warmest Color came from comics), could they all be translated, please?
The film is set in the near future, after an attempt to fix global warming through geoengineering goes horrendously wrong and the earth freezes over. The last human survivors live on the titular train, which circles the globe once a year. All this information is dispensed efficiently in the opening credits, and questions as to whether a train would make the best Ark for the human race are answered shortly afterwards.
Of course the train is a microcosm of the world’s socio-economic structure: the upper class in front, with all the amenities; the underclass crammed together at the back, unwashed and subsisting on protein bars issued by the authorities. The upper class worships Wilford, the man who built the train’s perpetual motion engine and lives in the engine room. We are told that there have been previous revolts from the back of the train, but they were crushed by the police force of the people in front, led by Tilda Swinton as every hateful/laughable rich twit who’s ever existed.
This time the rebels are led by Chris Evans, a hardworking, seriously underrated actor who makes us forget that he is Captain America. (Though several pounds of grime on his face do not obscure the eyes and lips. Poor him, too luscious to be taken seriously.) This rebel is not some perfect idealist: he’s had to do unspeakable things to survive, and he doesn’t want to be a leader of men. But it is precisely those experiences that have honed him, and his old mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) points out that he has no choice. (We like the homage to Terry Gilliam—Snowpiercer is the child of Brazil.)
Evans’s loyal sidekick is played by Jamie Bell (a fine actor who will always be Billy Elliot to us); Kang-ho Song is an engineer who agrees to open the sealed doors leading to the front in exchange for a drug called Kronole. (The language barrier is hurdled in a funny, clever way.) It’s a white-knuckle ride as the rebels fight their way to the front of the train, car by car, and the filmmakers don’t stint on the casualties. We see so much carnage at the movies that we no longer feel anything: thousands of people perish in superhero movies, but they don’t seem real. In Snowpiercer the close quarters combat is made especially brutal by our sympathy for the filthy underdogs: every time one of them falls, our rage at the oppressors mounts. We are the rabble, and we are roused.
But there are more vicious things than close combat, as the rebels discover in their progress to the engine room. There’s the lure of comfort (being able to bathe everyday, we’d imagine), and the temptation to become the very person one has sworn to overthrow. And there are the demands of leadership, of maintaining the fragile balance in a system perpetually besieged by nature, of respecting chaos. Snowpiercer is an action movie, but it lands its strongest punches as a critique of class and power.