Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer is every which way ridiculous judging from the premise: the earth has frozen over from a global-warming cure gone horribly wrong; all that's left of humanity are the occupants of a mile-long train, riding endlessly up and down the rails of the planet.
Why a train? As opposed to, say, a city or island or mountain retreat, all of which consume less energy and are easier to maintain? Why must the train keep moving? What keeps the train moving (only power source I can think of that lasts seventeen years is a nuclear reactor, in which case where's the shielding?)? Why is there an underclass, and why are they treated so badly?
Bong's achievement is to drive the narrative forward so that one by one--like so many hanky-waving well-wishers--each question is left behind, rendered irrelevant, even forgotten. One of the biggest though (why a train?) is granted an answer, a startling reply with disturbing implications.
On the most basic storytelling level we have this fantastical to the point of impossible rail adventure, the siderodromophiliac's ultimate wet dream. Toss in an epic car-to-car battle involving hatchets, torches, automatic weaponry, and the odd IED--enough mayhem to call this one of the most entertaining pictures of 2014 (actually 2013, but the Weinsteins had intervened).
On another level it's political allegory, a parody of the way things are today, with head section citizens luxuriating in front and tail section tribals starving in the back (unless they nibble on the regularly distributed black protein bars of mysterious formulation ). The tail section folk, inspired by the one-armed Gilliam (John Hurt, slouched in one corner and stealing every single scene he's in), urged on by the charismatic Curtis (Chris Evans sans adamantium shield, dashing and dodging and totally unaware he's being upstaged), batter their way to where better food, a better life, and Wilford--the train's mysteriously immensely rich owner and creator (a lovely little surprise cameo)--presumably await.
Opposing them are an army of armed and armored troopers personally led by Wilford's right hand, Minister Mason--glorious Tilda Swinton, capped with crooked cartoon dentures and speaking in the plummiest of upper-crust accents. More wounding than the troopers' bullets, more infuriating than the tyranny on display is Mason's condescension, experienced in full force when she instructs the rebels not just on the futility of their efforts but their effrontery (in her eyes they aren't just insurgents but ingrates--they abuse Wilford's generous hospitality, he who granted them berth on his wonder train, regularly feeds them protein blocks).
On yet another level it's a travel picture that explores not so much the features of this frozen world (a mostly repetitive montage of snowdrifts and ice cliffs and frosted cities) but of the train itself, an exercise in world-building in miniature. Call it Bong's parody of what the superrich might consider essential in a postcaloric apocalypse, his idea of futuristic decadence.
There must be a prison, of course--the rich need to keep their own in line (the tail folk they simply mow down with automatic fire) only (this being a train) space is too scarce for actual cells; the convicts are stored in pull-out cabinets. One prisoner is a genuine find: Namgoong Minsu (Bong regular Song Kang-ho), the security expert turned drug addict who devised the train's many doors. With his help the rebels' progress accelerates as resistance grows fiercer and more cunning (the head folks aren't about to give up their cushy lifestyle without a struggle).
A garden--naturally the rich need not just fresh fruits and vegetables, but somewhere green to rest their weary selves (rest from what exactly we don't at this point know); a sauna, a dance club (aha (see garden)!), a walk-through aquarium and in a glassed-in bubble within said aquarium a sushi bar serving screamingly fresh fish. When the rebels pause to snack, it's almost like visiting a chapel (I'd kill for a seat)--a solemn moment, being served the possibly last plate of nigiri on Earth.
What isn't present is as telling as what is--no church or rather the classroom is their church, with the next generation raised to be a fresh batch of worshippers (the teacher, blond and hugely pregnant, functions as the church's fanatical high priest). No zoo (Bong intended one but never shot it)--seafood apparently has priority over landbound meat. No library, observatory, exploration equipment, research lab--Snowpiercer is meant, apparently, to preserve memories of what was, rather than probe and develop what could be.
It's not a perfect picture. As action-adventure Snowpiercer is hardly breathtaking (I've seen better)--Bong's camera is at times too unsteady, too close in, the editing too confusing; as a thriller Bong himself has done tauter, far more evocative work. Call this an ambitious step up from Bong's previous science-fiction effort, but a far cry from his very best.
Beyond the dense tangle of symbols (tail vs. head; Namgoong in his prison drawer; Gilliam and his missing hand; Wilford the unseen owner-creator (you have to take his existence on faith)) is yet another level of interpretation, the one that interests me most and to my mind validates this effort (read no further if you plan to see the picture!)--the train as arena of struggle not for resources, or social recognition, or political power, but narrative control.
Just think: the rebels batter their way up to the water source and pause--they have control now, even a means of blackmailing the head folk, but don't; they want more. When they finally confront Wilford he radiates the aura not of leader or messiah or god but of an auteur--he not only had the train built, he's puppetmastered the present situation into being (perhaps the film's most science-fictional element: revolution as a form of social engineering straight out of George Orwell's 1984). The hurtling train in Bong's hands becomes a mile-long metaphor for the film's hurtling narrative, its intricate, deceptive power structure a metaphor for the narrative's twists and turns. When you submit, who do you serve? When you resist, who do you really serve?
Namgoong Minsu suggests a way out, a lateral move that checkmates Wilford and Gilliam and the whole messy evolutionary struggle. In its way the film declares itself a spiritual cousin to Gareth Evan's Godzilla: where Evan's monster functions as Nature's restorative agent (against which, the film suggests, we should respectfully submit), in Bong's film repression isn't an atrocity we should battle so much as blot out of our consciousness--the answer, he suggests, lies not in the front of the train, but somewhere else entirely. In either case the traditional goals of science-fiction action-adventure--power, resources, revenge--are subverted for more Asian (Eastern? Oriental?) ends.
At the film's finale their terminal position is as tenuous as ever--logically, the survivors shouldn't last long beyond the last frame--but emotionally Bong presents them as humanity's new Adam and Eve, poised to make the next great leap. Call me conned, or confused, or crazy, but I wish them luck.
First published in Businessworld, 7.24.14