I remember the bad old days when to see Snowpiercer in the UK you either had to import the film on DVD from the US or Europe, or illegally download it. Despite being a big, crowd-pleasing sci-fi action movie, almost entirely in English with an all-star cast, Bong Joon-ho’s film didn’t even get a theatrical release here. The problem was that it had fallen foul of Harvey 'Scissorhands' Weinstein, who bought the film to distribute then promptly insisted on 20 minutes of cuts, which Bong refused. It switched distributors but plans for a wide release in the US and beyond fell away, leaving the film in limbo.
In 2020, it seems absurd that a $40million movie starring Captain America himself, Chris Evans, made by the director of the Oscar-winning Parasite could be treated so shabbily, but things were very different all those years ago in, um, 2013. It isn’t that Snowpiercer has been critically reappraised since – it always had great reviews – but that its value as a potential cash cow has finally been realised and is about to be milked. So, following the film's addition to various streaming sites, there is this belated home entertainment release and, on the way before the end of the month, a spin-off Netflix show, starring Jennifer Connelly and Daveed Diggs.
Based on a French graphic novel – Le Transperceneige – the film takes place 17 years after an ambitious attempt to solve global warming has backfired horribly, wiping out nearly all life on Earth and ushering in a new Ice Age. In 2031, the only known survivors live on a self-sufficient, perpetually moving, high-speed train belonging to the mysterious Mr. Wilford (Ed Harris). Well-to-do passengers live the life of Riley in the front carriages, while the tail section is like something out of Les Misérables – the poor and wretched downtrodden and imprisoned. But revolution is in the air as Curtis (Evans), Edgar (Jamie Bell) and leader Gilliam (John Hurt) hatch a plan to fight their way, car-by-car, to the front to overthrow Wilford and seize control of his “sacred engine”.
Bong has always been a political filmmaker but he's good at sneaking in leftist messages via unusual means – cute, genetically-modified pigs in 2017's Okja (about animal rights), a river monster in 2006's The Host (about industrial pollution), and hilariously dysfunctional families in last year's Parasite (about class conflict). Snowpiercer is far more of a blunt instrument – the train is a microcosm of society with the poor in the tail section oppressed and exploited horribly by those in charge at the front. The downtrodden's response – armed revolt – is class warfare, pure and simple, with none of those “But who are the real parasites?” parlour games to disguise the fact. In the years after 2008's financial crash, the film's skewering of the 1% was very timely and its relevance hasn't faded. Indeed, the current pandemic crisis means Snowpiercer – in which people stay inside because of life-threatening danger outdoors – couldn't be more of-the-moment if it tried.
Tilda Swinton isn't in Snowpiercer very much – a few scenes spanning less than half an hour – but she still manages to steal the whole film. The We Need to Talk About Kevin actress plays Mason, Wilford’s second in command, like something out of an Alan Bennett play – if he'd had something slightly hallucinogenic slipped into his drink. Complete with outrageous false teeth, heavy Yorkshire accent, and a glint of sociopathy in her eye, like Thora Hird channelling Margaret Thatcher, Swinton is an absolute hoot. There is something about the way in which such a grotesquely comic character throws around threats – “Precisely 74 per cent of you will die” – that makes them even more chilling.
Swinton’s Mason would have been right at home in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), and the fact Hurt’s character is even named after the director confirms the debt Snowpiercer owes to the earlier movie (as well as 1995’s 12 Monkeys from the same filmmaker). Brazil’s depiction of sadistic authoritarianism and the eccentric dystopia it presides over certainly finds an echo here, although, in truth, Gilliam's world building is even more impressive, his imagination more expansive. In stark contrast to Mason, Evans’ Curtis is very much the "everyman" character we are invited to relate to and root for – it is he that drives the plot and his arc that is centre-stage, as he goes from reluctant leader to revolutionary figurehead. That said, a lot of the stuff that makes Curtis interesting isn't initially revealed, so other characters get to do the heavy lifting, including the train's security expert Namgoong (Parasite's Song Kang-ho) and his clairvoyant daughter Yona (The Host's Ko Asung).
Drug addicts, the pair have been imprisoned by Wilford, and although they are bribed to throw in their lot with the revolutionaries, stake out their own distinct space in the movie; speaking only Korean throughout, having an uneasy relationship with Curtis and his crew, and clearly working to their own divergent agenda. A thoroughly enigmatic, crumpled but robustly physical presence here, Song is an impressively versatile actor and it's easy to see why the ongoing working relationship between he and Bong (the pair have made four movies together) has been favourably compared to that of Scorsese/De Niro and Kurosawa/Mifune.
Revolution is a bloody business in Snowpiercer and those in power aren't going to give up their position at the top of the food chain without a vicious, to-the-death struggle. The most impressive of several blood-spattered action sequences sees the tail section’s band of revolutionaries go at it with Wilford’s sinister army of masked, axe-wielding goons, in the narrow confines of one of the Snowpiercer's carriages. It is as beautifully choreographed as it is eye-wateringly savage, Bong punctuating the action with a series of entertaining interruptions and inventively switching to night-vision mode when the train speeds through a pitch-black tunnel. A shootout in an onboard schoolroom is an inspired piece of twisted comedy, while Wilford's chief enforcer, Franco (4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days' Vlad Ivanov), provides a lowering presence throughout, responsible for the deaths of several of Curtis's comrades in arms and a crucial participant in every one of the film's best action sequences.
Away from the ultra-violence, it’s the small touches that truly please – the horrible black protein bars upon which the tail section subsists, the fiendishly cruel punishment for acts of rebellion, the phrase “train babies” to describe those born on Wilford’s creation whose feet have never once touched terra firma. These bits of detail really transport you into Bong’s world and keep you there, and the same can certainly be said for the titular CGI train and the beautiful but brutal landscape of fallen cities and frozen expanses through which it hurtles.
As it nears its final destination, proceedings do dawdle a little as the director perhaps takes too long to move all his pieces into place (a scene between Harris and Evans that owes something to Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory could certainly have done with some pruning). But the delivery of a couple of very smart, very disturbing twists, as well as the film's perfect closing moments, get Snowpiercer back on the rails before the final credits roll.
Disappointingly, the extras contain no mention of Bong’s battle with Weinstein (the situation was “like something out of a black comedy” according to the director) or even the imminent TV show, but Transperceneige: From The Blank Page To The Black Screen makes up for it. A fascinating 54-minute documentary, it tells the story of how the original French graphic novel series came to be adapted by Bong. Although the director pops up throughout, the doc mainly focusses on artist Jean-Marc Rochette, who drew the original three volumes, and writer Benjamin Legrand (the series’ original scribe Jacques Lob died in 1990).
Le Transperceneige had been mostly forgotten before Bong got his hands on it and Rochette and Legrand cannot quite believe their luck, as they are treated like rock stars at screenings, press conferences and book signings in South Korea and France. Rochette’s story is particularly interesting as he had abandoned the French graphic novel industry and moved to Berlin after one too many bad experiences with publishers.
Beyond that, there are three brief featurettes. One boasts interview snippets with Evans and Swinton, another (The Birth Of Snowpiercer) some interesting behind-the-scenes stuff, and a third offers an introduction to the film’s main characters. A short, animated sequence – The End Of The World And The New Beginning – acts as a prequel to the film and is voiced by Ko Asung, who plays Yona. It’s all a bit “blink and you’ll miss it” though.
Snowpiercer is released on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK on May 25
Dir: Bong Joon Ho | Cast: Chris Evans, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Kang-ho Song | Writers: Benjamin Legrand (based on Le Transperceneige by), Bong Joon Ho (screen story), Bong Joon Ho (screenplay), Jacques Lob (based on Le Transperceneige by), Jean-Marc Rochette (based on Le Transperceneige by), Kelly Masterson (screenplay)