It began on July 4th 2014, a date which probably seemed more distant when Bong Joon-Ho’s film was released in his native South Korea last August. Based on Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette’s 1982 graphic novel Le Transperceneige, that was the date when the experimental chemical CW7 was dispersed into the upper levels of the atmosphere to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, but the effect on the global environment was catastrophic and within seven years the entire planet was in the grip of an ice age. The surface uninhabitable, the only survivors of the extinct planet have been living in the Snowpiercer for seventeen years as it follows its circular route across the frozen continents, powered by a perpetual motion machine.
Designed by Wilford, now worshipped as the divine keeper to the ruling classes, as revered as the engine he designed, the train is segregated by class with the idle rich occupying the forward first class carriages and those regarded as freeloaders kept in the rear, fed jellified protein bars and treated ruthlessly, but four years after the last attempted takeover revolution grows anew. Led by Curtis and Edgar ((Chris Evans and Jamie Bell) under the guidance of the elderly Gilliam (John Hurt), they have a plan to break into the next section of the train where they can locate and free the incarcerated Namgoong (Song Kang-ho) who they believe can unlock the gates between the different sections.
The cooperation of the drug addicted Namgoong is key to their success; unless they can successfully seize the front of the Snowpiercer, the revolution will fail. They have no weapons, only the determination borne of their oppression and their goal: “We control the engine, we control the world.” Stood against them are the armed troops of the ruthless Miss Mason, Tilda Swinton, condescending in the manner of a schoolteacher who berates all around to maintain her elevation over those in steerage and vicious in her enforcement of her rule.
Revolution starts when what is below bubbles up with a violence and anger which can no longer be controlled and Snowpiercer is undeniably a film for the zeitgeist, the lower classes kept hungry and in the dark, fed the hallucinogenic drug Kronole made from industrial waste products and denied access to windows in their “particular preordained position,” dazzled by the first time they glimpse the dazzle of sunlight on the snow.
Unable to see their destination even though they know it is directly ahead it is a blind quest for Curtis, with Gilliam uncomfortable with the faith the younger man places in him. With Curtis having good reason for doubting his own ability to lead and inspire but faced with wholesale murder sanctioned by their oppressors, the rebels have no choice to be as remorseless and relentless as their enemy as it is the only way to finish what they have started, a primitive rage striking out of the darkness with fire.
Flipping from the grim deprivation of the tail section to the outrageous satire of the primary school indoctrination of the gospel of the engine, the horror of how easily all could be lost is always present, the flawless ensemble cast carries every change of tone seamlessly.
Including Octavia Spencer and Ewen Bremner, each hunting for a child taken forward, Luke Pasqualino as the deadly tattooed fighter Grey and Ah-sung Ko as Namgoong’s daughter Yona, it is Evans and Swinton who carry the burden, he a far cry from the undaunted Captain America, a broken man unable to turn back to face the horror of a past where his only crime was surviving and she giving a fearless performance, allowing herself to be hated as a tyrant and spineless as a traitor.
The train itself, twenty seven carriages fully constructed in chains of six or seven on a soundstage in Prague, is a wonder of design from the cobbled together artefacts and relics of the rear sections and the sparse functionality of the security areas which give way to the magical revelations of the aquariums and spa facilities of the upper classes and the hedonism of those solely devoted to luxury, each uniquely designed within the same basic linear template.
An incendiary film of a world that is on the last crumbling step before the final edge, neither the science nor the logic of the semi-sealed ecosystem of the Snowpiercer may stand up to scrutiny, but that is not the point. The film is not subtle, proudly flying its flag to draw attention to the world ruined by the reliance on an experimental technological fix in contrast to the sushi bar which only serves twice a year in order to maintain balance and the class inequalities that have led to open warfare.
That the international release of the film has been delayed by the distributors who allegedly wished to streamline the narrative into an action vehicle is perhaps as damning of the corporate mindset as the film itself.
Snowpiercer is released in America in late June; no UK release has been confirmed