Joon-ho Bong, “Snowpiercer / Seolgugyeolcha” (2013)
Joon-ho Bong’s first outing in the English language is an enjoyably silly ride into the post-apocalyptic dystopian SF genre. Concerns about global warming in 2014 lead to governments agreeing to an audacious geo-engineering experiment in which jets spray crystals in the upper atmosphere. Scientists believe that these crystals are likely to cool the planet down sufficiently to avert the climatic extremes, unusual weather phenomena and all other natural disasters associated with climate change, temporarily at least. Damn right those boffins are: climate modifications plunge Earth into a new all-enveloping Ice Age and all life becomes extinct. Some several hundred humans manage to crowd onto a super-long train, powered by a perpetual-motion engine and built by the Wilford Corporation, headed by … who else? – the eponymous super-engineer Wilford (Ed Harris) himself. In order to get along, these humans have sorted themselves into a rigidly stratified society depending on the category of rail ticket they bought originally: the people who purchased the most expensive tickets obtain accommodation near the front of the train and get to enjoy lives of streamlined luxury and endless pleasure; those in business class have to do some work but still enjoy amenities appropriate for their money’s worth; economy class ticket-holders are mostly relegated to manual work serving the needs of the rich while some of their brothers and sisters who drew the short straws must serve as security guards to make sure the freeloaders in the crowded cattle cars at the back of the train stay in their allocated places.
In these cattle cars an elderly man Gilliam (John Hurt) and a younger passenger Curtis (Chris Evans) plot rebellion with their fellow Great Unwashed, especially after a number of children in their section have been whisked away by the security guards and taken to the front of the train. Their rebellion leads them through succeeding train carriages where they face implacable and bloodthirsty hooded guards in charge of the food vat (that supplies the freeloaders with protein blocks made from cockroaches) and the water-tank. The rebels collect a security guard Minsu Namgoong (Kang-ho Song) and his daughter Yuna from cryogenic chambers as Minsu is needed to open the gates and he won’t agree to go unless Yuna accompanies him. Needless to say, Curtis and Gilliam lose huge numbers of followers in their battles – in this degraded world, the art of negotiation and diplomacy has been lost – and at times the struggle is tedious and gory. Curtis loses his best friend Edgar (Jamie Bell) and Gilliam along the way.
The rebels collect a hostage, Mason (Tilda Swinton), who is responsible for enforcing the rules on the train, and force her to take them through the carriages where the upper class lead their lives of idle pleasure. They pause for rest at a sushi restaurant and in an elementary school where they observe the upper class children being indoctrinated with a belief system in which the train represents an iron Tree of Life and is their entire reason for living. To leave the train is to die and Wilford is to be regarded as a god.
By the time the rebels reach the engine-room, their numbers are whittled down to Curtis, Minsu and Yuna. Curtis meets Wilford who tells him some alarming home truths about himself (Curtis) and Gilliam: it turns out that on a regular basis, Wilford and Gilliam foment rebellion in the economy class cattle cars so as to give the security guards an excuse to cut down on overpopulation in the train carriages in the interests of sustainability. Curtis slowly realises that he has been groomed to head the rebellion and been allowed by the security guards – some of whom are so psychopathic that they can will themselves to rise from the dead! – to reach the engine-room where Wilford is waiting to pass on his mantle of overlordship.
As social satire “Snowpiercer” just about holds together: there are gaping plot holes where the stitching has come loose or was forgotten and parts of the film look as if they re-used old sets from recent Hollywood sci-fi efforts. The plot is a mess especially in its last half-hour where it piles on one twist after another: Curtis reveals his cannibal past to Minsu and Minsu and Yuna spend a lot of time fighting off a zombie security guard and hordes of angry upper class party-goers from some of the carriages while they desperately try to blow open an engine door with the industrial waste plasticine stuff that Minsu had been hoarding for many years. The acting ranges from barely adequate to hammy and in a film where the script has no brakes, character development is sketchy indeed. Swinton steals every scene she is in as the despot deputy and Alison Pill as the Stepford-Wife school-teacher is hilariously cartoonish and creepy. Hurt goes through his routine of wise geezer with a sinister secret. Kang-ho Song manages to inject some thoughtfulness into his one-dimensional role and Evans almost but not quite succeeds in making Curtis as something more than the stock character stereotype of an everyday man thrust unexpectedly into a revolutionary leadership role.
The technical details can be astonishing to behold on first viewing; repeated viewings though reveal the flat CGI landscapes outside the train and some of the interior sets appear to be hand-me-downs from other Hollywood blockbuster SF films and are in need of some imagination. The culture of the upper class moochers has barely changed since 2014; heck, much of it hasn’t changed since the turn of the century in 2000 – or the 1800s as Curtis discovers in horror when he and Yuna peek into the engine’s innards and see the cattle car children toiling in Dickensian conditions.
Plot as such is threadbare: the aim is to progress from the back of the train to the front and Bong treats us to a sociological survey of the train society as moulded by Wilford. Wilford’s vision of human nature is essentially Hobbesian and pessimistic: people are basically irrational, highly emotional creatures motivated solely by material pleasures but since the train’s capacity to carry what people need is very limited, everyone on the train has been shoe-horned into a highly stratified society in which socioeconomic inequality is vast. The folks in the over-crowded cattle car economy class are kept in a state of ignorance and are tightly policed. It obviously never occurs to Wilford to think that the more he represses the Great Unwashed, the more they will revolt; neither does he realise that if everyone was treated equally and received equal shares of food, clothing and material comforts, train society would be more peaceful, there would be less over-breeding in the cattle cars, and there would be no need for periodic purging of the population. This is where the film falls flat as an examination of society and reveals the essentially conservative mental paradigm about human nature and its potential for change that prevails in Hollywood and by implication the rest of the United States. In this narrow worldview, the law of the jungle dominates, people solve problems with violence instead of negotiation, there is little pity for underdogs and those who overthrow the elite are expected to replace them as a new elite and society with all its social layers continues as before.
The film ends on a pessimistic note as (spoiler alert) the train’s engine door is blasted open, unleashing an avalanche in the mountains that stops and buries the train and leaves very few survivors. Even if that hadn’t happened, there is still a punchline that all isn’t well with the train: Curtis and Yuna learn that the perpetual-motion engine powering the iron beast on its endless journey is wearing out and losing parts, and the children from the cattle car section have to substitute for needed spare parts. This horrific discovery spells out that Wilford’s utopia-turned-dystopia in which the endless search for material comfort and pleasure by a few ends up cannibalising humans and must eventually reach its telos. Whatever purpose Wilford and his corporation built the train for, beyond maintaining human survival, remains unknown: there is no suggestion in the film that the upper classes really have a better life spiritually than Curtis, Gilliam and their people do in their barracks-like conditions. An underlying message that some lives can be so lacking in purpose beyond material gratification that people living such lives might be just as better off dead as lives lived in sheer poverty and hopelessness is hard to miss.