As modern cinematic allegories go, we’re having a right old time with allegories of class warfare. It works to varying degrees, and to different effect. The difference between the districts and the Capitol in both Hunger Games movies is extreme, and provides the thematic background for the permanent civil unrest and resentment of the wealthy. District B-13 provides a simple notion of the rich and powerful plotting to obliterate the poor. In The Dark Knight Rises class warfare is used as an idea for a plot point that’s never fully developed once it makes it’s appearance (most likely because the film never managed to make a singular coherent story out of its many good ideas) but it still reinforces a simple idea to use as a thematic blueprint in a film:
The rich and powerful exploit the poor and downtrodden;
the downtrodden do something about it.
Snowpiercer recognises the simplicity of that notion and runs with it from start to finish. It’s everything the movie is about, not just as a half-baked undercurrent in the ideas and themes the movie uses.
Set a few years in the future, after an attempt to combat global warming goes horribly right, the earth is completely frozen, killing all life except the surviving handful who managed to board the Snowpiercer, a train that perpetually circles a trans-continental route, providing shelter from the global tundra outside.
The wealthy elite, pampered passengers who don’t have to worry about their comfort at all, inhabit the front section of the train. This is in stark contrast to the dark and dirty overcrowded quarters at the rear of the train, where the poor and downtrodden spend their days, constantly under the pressure of the armed security that works between the two sections, often being picked out of the crowd due to a particular skill that would be more beneficial to the front end of the train.
The inequality is massive and apparent, but in a society that exists among such a limited number of people in such a limited space, who cares about presenting inequality in the name of political good with buzzwords and spin? The tail end of the train know they’re downtrodden and disadvantaged full well – the front of the train constantly reminds them of this.
Cue the revolution, and enter our protagonist Curtis (Chris Evans), who rallies the tail-enders together along with his second-in-command Edgar (Jamie Bell) into a call to arms. Along with Tanya (Octavia Spencer), a fiercely protective mother whose son has been abducted by the front cars, and the reluctant assistance of Minsoo and Yona (Song Kangho and Ko Asung) a criminal father-daughter duo who know how to open the gates between the cars, they begin a surge to the front of the car to overthrow the ruling elite, as represented by the oleaginous Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), a cold hearted and reptilian monster of a woman who spouts some insane rhetoric about the nature of their class system.
Effectively using the setting of a train to craft an episodic plot that naturally progresses forward along with its characters, Snowpiercer takes the base of the poor revolting against the rich and crafts everything out of that. The basic plot ties into this, but then also individual character motivations (Tanya wants her son back, and he was taken by the rich; Edgar wants revenge for the inequality experienced between them all; Curtis wants to atone for things that happened in the past purely as a result of the absence of compassion among the rich), even the stakes of the film – the rich have guns, the poor have only their hands; the rich have access into the train, the poor know nothing of it beyond their own quarters.
This is actually essential to the tension in the film – the audience sees nothing of the train except what the main characters see as they progress, and as such knows nothing about what lies ahead on the train until it’s happening to the main characters, which leads to several great reveals, as well as absurdly funny moments (it’s hilariously jarring to have the characters move through car after car of waiting soldiers only to then be confronted by a saccharinely sweet yet demented children’s classroom).
The film being centred so heavily on the rich/poor divide means that it’s consistent throughout, and keeps things moving along that foundation, rather than losing its way as the beats of the story play out and consequences are felt harder. This is not a film that changes tactics or scope halfway through; nor is it a one-note film that’s trying too hard with its allegory.
Things do change. Revelations are made. Circumstances change. The audience’s perceptions or expectations of characters change as well. But it all makes sense with what has come before it, and these changes then make an impact on what comes after.
Lest it be thought of as too simple though, it’s worth mentioning how well made the film is. Marco Beltrami’s score is subtle but spectacular; Hong Kyung Pyo’s cinematography leaves the film bleak but not washed out – the muted greys and browns of the tail end of the train set up a great theme before being (literally) blinded by variations once the characters encounter cars with windows in them. The fights scenes are choreographed and staged well, and they work well to actually make the violence violent.
One of the earlier large-scale fight scenes starts off in high framerate frenetic editing style (misleading you into thinking it’s going to be one of those visually-incomprehensible films) before slowing everything right down so you can see and feel every punch kick cut and beating in clear detail, before returning to a normal speed and resuming the film as you’d expect, but with a greater awareness of the pain being inflicted by and to our main characters. Rather than it being a gimmick, it’s an effective editing choice that makes the scene have an impact. It also features Curtis slipping over on a fish in slow motion, because this film isn’t above making something ridiculous in otherwise serious circumstances.
And that’s the other key essential element of the film – despite its gritty and dystopian setting, despite the class-warfare plot, despite the violence and tension – it’s a fun movie. Having the setting it has doesn’t negate its ability to be enjoyable, and it’s a film that balances the serious and the absurd well (witness pretty much the entirety of Tilda Swinton’s performance). It’s not a dour and humourless exercise just because it’s dark and gritty, and that is one of the more welcome reliefs, and a big reason why this stands above the glut of quickly made action films out there.
For a dystopian sci-fi action film about a grizzled band of heroes fighting their way from point A to point B (i.e. a premise that could have been handled by the laziest director and still turned a profit), this is a film with a remarkable amount of effort put in, which stands out as a great, fun time to be had at the movies.
Snowpierecer has only recently been released in cinemas in Australia, but is currently available on iTunes and Amazon VOD for US audiences as well.