In 2014, the nations of Earth decided that they could no longer ignore the issue of global warming. Their solution was to use airplanes to disperse a chemical into the atmosphere in hopes of bringing the temperature down. They inadvertently ushered in a new ice age, and the vast majority of the population froze to death. As luck would have it, a mad scientist, Wilford, had designed a train to circumnavigate the globe, making one full trip over the course of a year powered by an eternally running, Sacred Engine. A small portion of the population boarded the train, dubbed The Snowpiercer, and survived the apocalypse. Some of them wish they did not. Sometimes, the dead are the lucky ones.
For the past 17 years of winter, Snowpiercer has run its course across the planet, protecting all passengers from the hostile environment outside. Sadly, it cannot protect mankind from mankind, and the survivors have recreated one of the most heinous caste systems in the history of humanity. The train allows no one to leave, so all must play along in this wicked and sadistic show, run by Mason (Tilda Swinton), who uses a classic line of logic from Hinduism to explain why everyone must, “Keep your place!” Mason represents the Haves who live in the head of the train, near the Sacred Engine, and live a life of color, steaks, and pleasure. The Have Nots survive in the tail of the train, living on top of one another in a constantly bleak existence of greys and gelatinous protein bars.
As one might expect, there is one who is ready to rise up and lead the revolt. He is Curtis (Chris Evans), and he lived 17 years on Earth before 17 years on the train, and he would like to forget all 34. Advised by the wise old man, Gilliam (John Hurt), and supported by his loyal friend, Edgar (Jamie Bell), Curtis has slowly been crafting a plan to break free of the tail. An unknown helper spurs Curtis on, and the tail revolts. After a great battle that claims many lives, Curtis and a chosen few decide to finish the journey to the wizard alone.
The second half of the journey through the train is where Snowpiercer shifts into high gear and really starts swinging for the fences. The motley crew passes through train car after train car, each one more surreal than the last. As they travel, the backstory is craftily revealed, and we learn all the necessary information about the characters and the world they inhabit to keep any questions from pestering the mind. The adventure comes to its inevitable conclusion at the head of the train, where two conversations take place; one addresses the head, the other, the body.
The best sci-fi sets its scenario in the near future to discuss the issues of today, and the story of Snowpierece is a mere 17 years removed from today. Part allegory, part Hero’s Journey, Snowpiercer makes no concessions about its religious and political metaphors, and it is all the stronger for it. South Korean director Bong Joon-ho and American playwright Kelly Masterson draw from the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette. This combination is what keeps Snowpiercer from feeling too nationalistic or righteous. The struggle is reduced to the basic battle between those who have everything and those who have nothing. A topic du jour that has existed since day one.
Snowpiercer begins with an allusion to Kurt Vonnegut’s seminal novel, Cat’s Cradle, with an Ice-9 knock-off causing the New Ice Age. Vonnegut ends his novel with the final sentence from The Books of Bokonon, the made-up religion that populates Cat’s Cradle. The passage reads:
If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.
Snowpiercer isn’t about religion specifically, but it is a crucial subtext. Curtis’ journey to Wilford is a spiritual one, and his final act is him thumbing his nose at You Know Who. Thankfully, Joon-ho and his company do not end the story of Snowpiercer on an act of defiance; they end it on a moment of hope—a moment of life begin anew—with the gender and racial make-up of these two survivors thumbing their noses at the (incorrectly) perceived majority.
Directed By: Bong Joon-ho
Written By: Bong Joon-ho & Kelly Masterson
Screen Story By: Bong Joon-ho
Adapted from the French Graphic Novel Le Transperceneige Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, Jean-Marc Rochette
Produced By: Tae-sung Jeong, Tae-hun Lee, Steven Nam, Chan-wook Park
Starring: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Kang-ho Song, Ah-sung Ko, Octavia Spencer, Alison Pill, Ed Harris
RADiUS-TWC, Rated R, Running time 126 minutes, Released June 27, 2014.