Hell on Wheels

(South Korea/USA/France/Czech Republic, 126 min.)
Dir. Bong Joon Ho, Writ. Bong Joon-Ho, Kelly Masterson
Starring: Chris Evans, Kang-ho Song, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ah-sung Ko, with John Hurt and Ed Harris.
Courtesy eOne Films.

“My friend, you suffer from the misplaced optimism of the doomed,” sneers a haughty Mason (Tilda Swinton) to Curtis (Chris Evans), the hero leading the masses from steerage to first class in Snowpiercer. Swinton’s snivelling elitist and Evans’s compelling leader help make Snowpiercer one of the more provocative, not to mention entertaining, depictions of contemporary economic and ecological battlefields as ideologies clash within the confines of the heavily segregated train. South Korean director Bong Joon Ho (Mother) conducts a world cinema thrill-ride en route to the end of humanity, for the spectacular production design and foreboding darkness make Snowpiercer one of the stronger destinations for alternative fare this summer. Snowpiercer, aside from some choppy bumps in the ride, is an exhilarating first class ticket.

Curtis leads a mutiny that has been brewing in the tail end of the train for some time. The train, a Noah’s Ark on tracks, houses the surviving humans on the planet after Earth freezes over following some botched attempt to curb global warming. The conductor of the train, unlike Noah, prefers to separate the goats from the sheep, and the train moves full throttle on the class system as the haves ride at the front and the have-nots ride in the back. The people of the tail are tired of the dregs and they plan an uprising that hopes to lead them all the way to the front of the train where the mysterious conductor, Wilford, will either rectify the imbalance or derail the last few hopes for humanity.

The train is a hard place in which to raise a struggle, though, for it is thoroughly designed with social stratification in mind. “Know your place. Keep your place,” Mason advises the people of the boot as she delivers one of what seems to be a ritual of speeches aimed at dehumanizing the members of the lowest class while she passes the time it takes to punish a civilian during a public shaming. The Occupy Movement has been contained, the masses are under control, and well-fed ministers like Mason may dictate ideology to keep the poor in line. Her darkly funny speech, in which she uses a renegade shoe as a symbol for social control, forecasts that the economic divide only grows bigger as humanity moves away from 2014. Perhaps that train has left the station.

Snowpiercer, however, almost feels bleaker the further Curtis and company enter the enemy territory of first class. Ideology barely veils itself in the back car when Mason puts on a show for the masses, but the cars near the front are a whole other world of social control. As Mason accompanies the group to the engine, she introduces the backenders to some horrifying, if hilarious, school lessons, which are led by a sprightly Alison Pill. Other cars see wealthy riders knock back in a drugged out haze, while others remain blissfully ignorant of the chaos that goes on in the back of the train as they occupy themselves with shopping and sushi. Willful blindness defines the upper class then just as much as it does now.

Bong makes the social inequality especially delicious, though, by restricting humanity solely to the back end of the train. Love between parents and children is nary to be seen in the front, especially since children are taken from their parents in the back end and ushered into unseen places, like when Tanya (Octavia Spencer) sees her son Timmy ripped from under her dress before the aforementioned shoe assault. Alternatively, the members of the first class are almost comically inhumane. These people deserve to die, and there is great pleasure in feeling the kills that advance the lower class to the front of the train. From the moment that Mason tells the riders to be a shoe, Snowpiercer leaves one salivating to see her and everyone like her to get their comeuppance.

Even the sorriest of the highfalutin first-classers/one-percenters, however, provides a pretty darn good show. Tilda Swinton easily steals the film as the snooty Mason. The Scottish chameleon is utterly unrecognizable as the frumpy minister. Swinton is hilarious, wicked, and a darn good conductor of the crazy train. Mason gets her jollies off leading the lower classes like one does lambs to the slaughter, but the desperation and the need for the folks at the head of the train to sell one another out is plainly evident in how easily Swinton lets Mason crumble pathetically, yet shrewdly, as she sees that her life is in danger. There might even be a shred of humanity to the woman as she sinks her false teeth into the unsightly protein bars that the backenders have been eating for eighteen years while she enjoys steak and sushi.

Snowpiercer packs a very strong ensemble, though, and provides worthy friends for Swinton’s foil. Evans gives one of his stronger performances as Curtis. Especially in a final act monologue does Evans unburden the weight of Curtis’s mission with surprising conviction. The film really packs a punch. Evans headlines a truly international ensemble that features top-notch work from South Korean actors Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko, Brits John Hurt and Jamie Bell, and Americans Ed Harris and Octavia Spencer, the latter of whom gives a surprisingly determined performance that is far removed from the sassy spunk of Minny Jackson. The international range of the cast fills the train with added scope and resonance, for the story of the fighters extends to a global struggle for humanity’s last stand.

It’s hard to get ahead, too, when each stage between classes is divided by locked doors with armed goons waiting on the other side. The impressive production design by Ondrej Nekvasil makes the train one of the most effective settings amidst the roster of sci-fi/dystopian films of late. The collaboration between Bong and DP Kyung-Pyo Hong gives Snowpiercer a threatening visual design, as the layers of class reveal themselves further in the wafts of light that gradually enter the film the further Curtis and his team move forward in the train. (The tight confines of the train ensure that Snowpiercer translates relatively well for home viewing, but the impressive originality of vision demands the film be seen on the big screen.) The train itself provides the perfect metaphor in which to stage such a story, for the tight confines of the production design limit lateral movement both literally and figuratively: the people may only move forwards or backwards. This dark, cold, steely place is hell on wheels. Snowpiercer plays out on a horizontal plane thanks to the ever-rolling train, but it feels as if one crawls out from under the earth and escapes the darkness the more the action advances towards the engine.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Snowpiercer is currently playing in limited release and is available to rent on iTunes.
It opens in Ottawa at The Mayfair on August 1.

What did you think of Snowpiercer?