The first time I saw this movie, I couldn’t stand it! I saw it as just another science fiction allegory about class differences in a post-apocalyptic world, but nothing about it made any sense to me. You know, it is a story like The Hunger Games, or, even more similar, like last year’s High-Rise (2016). In fact, it is exactly like High-Rise but instead of second-class citizens fighting their way upwards toward the rich and powerful on the top floor, Snowpiercer is set on a train with poor people fighting their way forwards to the rich and powerful who control the engine.
But most science-fiction at least has some kind of internal logic to it. You see, District 9 (2009) for example is about apartheid, but its world-building is internally consistent. High-Rise (2016) is much more allegorical and still has some logic to it, but Snowpiercer is just plain weird and unbelievable. It concerns an eternally moving train that travels around the world while the rest of the planet is frozen. Only at my second viewing did I learn to let go of any realistic expectations from this movie and could I enjoy the visual strangeness of it. And then I loved it.
Where Snowpiercer excels, is in beautiful visual imagery and in the power of arresting moments of strangeness. The story does not speak in the plain language of science fiction but in the language of exaggeration. As our heroes battle their way forward in the train, from carriage to carriage, each carriage offers something new and telling about the world they are discovering. If you try to imagine how this train-society would function, then it all falls apart. But the blood-pumping revolution that the story offers in the first half-hour strangely sputters to a halt when our intrepid heroes move through aquariums or school rooms.
In a way, this is brilliant. Revolutions usually play out on the hard streets. But the carriages of the train force the tough soldiers to move through intimate, indoor environments where the upper-class life is taking place. And that way lies the danger of the revolution getting swallowed up, of getting corrupted. The higher class is not just people being rich. There is a philosophy of subversion running through that society, a turned-around subversion that works on the minds of the lower class. “Know your place”, or, when that doesn’t work, “join us”. What Snowpiercer does so well, is making us feel those mental challenges.
This film has a lot of international heritage. It’s a Korean movie, directed by Joon-ho Bong (had an earlier hit with the monster-move Gwoemul), and it’s my theory that the Korean influence strengthened the weirdness of this movie, judging from other Korean stuff like Oldboy (2003). The visual power of Snowpiercer can also be traced back to a French graphic novel named Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, and their drawings can be seen in the movie as drawings by a lower-class passenger.
Mix that all up with both American and Korean actors and you have a remarkable amalgamation of influences. As far as dystopias go with very obvious messages about class differences, Snowpiercer is one of the most interesting. What could have been a very generic story is instead something strange and arresting. There is not a dull moment in the film. Recommended if you like strong visual moviemaking.