The best pieces of science fiction, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, are those which explore and speculate how society will function in the face of new challenges and new technology. In that regard, Snowpiercer rises above Hollywood’s typical ‘SFX porn’ sci-fi output.
The film’s namesake is the train on which it is set: a long, cross-climate vehicle perpetually circling the globe. However, this train’s most fascinating characteristic is not its advanced technology, but the strictly-enforced class hierarchy which exists on-board. Its passengers are the sole survivors of a catastrophic international attempt to compensate for global warming, and few have the privilege of a first-class ticket. Thus the conditions are set for the film’s exciting driving conflict: a revolution.
Outside the train, endless winter rages on. Inside, Curtis (Chris Evans) is inspired by the impoverished tail carriages’ symbolic leader, Gilliam (John Hurt), to plan meticulously for the overthrow of Snowpiercer’s semi-mythical ruler, Wilson (Ed Harris). Eventually, the train’s tense social set-up explodes into brutal revolutionary justice. The revolutionaries’ progression through each carriage, aided by drug-addled security expert Namgoong (Song Kang-ho) and his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung), is almost like a video game: they open gates, step through, and visceral fight scenes usually begin.
But Snowpiercer, through its sympathetic cast and stylish depiction of its captivating universe, delivers this in a way that isn’t irritating or repetitive. Audiences will find themselves cheering on this idiosyncratic team of the dispossessed as they head closer and closer to the front of the train (made evident by the increasing opulence and decadence of the carriages they pass through); the revolutionary ensemble finds great character in young Edgar (Jamie Bell), mother Tanya (Octavia Spencer), and vengeful torture victim Andrew (Ewen Bremner). Their progress is unpredictable, and Snowpiercer masterfully controls the tone of each scene to rock the viewer through to its cathartic conclusion, a well-established talent of director Bong Joon-ho.
Snowpiercer’s authoritarian regime is personified mostly through the sickly-sweet Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), whose admonishing addresses and cruel punishments for attempts at resistance complement her unnerving resemblance to a mean schoolteacher. Her arrogance and eccentricity underlines powerfully the deep social divide between the rear and front of the train, her flippancy towards the tail-enders a sign of the wider regime’s disregard for their quality of life. Swinton’s performance here is stellar – she provides an excellent villain to stoke the flames of discontent in the audience and provoke sympathy for those in the rear carriages.
Snowpiercer is not only a highlight of this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, but a highlight of recent science fiction. It’s action-packed and guaranteed to revive the rebellious spirit of its audience; it’s a parable – similar in premise to Noah’s Ark – that emphasises the importance of empathy and equality, and lauds the determination of the downtrodden. Perfect for this era of heightened social consciousness and unforgiving in its raw, bone-crunching take on class conflict, there is something pleasantly affirming about Snowpiercer’s Manichean approach to fairness and justice. Its ending is sure to prove divisive, but it’s hard not to enjoy the journey. Hop aboard!