This was a hard one to write. While watching Snowpiercer I was simultaneously thinking “this is really good” and “what is this movie?!” It is somehow campy without seeming so, and quality without the traditional signs thereof. It is definitely safe to say this film is not for everyone: from dark comedy to comic book violence to melodramatic speeches, it is bizarre, unrealistic, and off the rails (no pun intended). And yet, it is somehow utterly human, and, well, wonderful.
For the unaware, this is the premise of Snowpiercer: humanity tries to reverse global warming by spewing a chemical into the atmosphere, only to cause a new ice age, “killing everything on Earth.” The only safe haven is a never-stopping train encircling the world, in which the tail inhabitants, subjugated by the front-of-the-train elite, prepare to revolt. This silly and utterly unoriginal premise leads to a plot ridden with holes and unanswered questions. But in a rare demonstration of over-suspension of disbelief, I just didn’t care. It might be the tight, claustrophobic confines of the train that inject suspense and originality into this tired rebirth of humanity storyline, or it might be the constant forward motion of the revolt from tail to engine, but somehow the plot got me hooked despite its fallbacks.
Snowpiercer has more than a few references to other genre works: a character reminiscent of River from Firefly; fight scenes that could be right out of Kill Bill or Sucker Punch; and various thematic resemblances to films like 1984, The Day After Tomorrow, and Soylent Green. These aren’t clear, obvious references, but it seems the director has a strong centre in genre cinema, tropes of which he enjoys playing with. Unsurprisingly for a foreign sci-fi flick, there are some amazing action scenes – extended and brutal fighting, bordering on hyper-violence, these brawls are interesting because of the need of the revolt to always move forward. What’s more, the film is not confined by the Hollywood construct of keeping its main characters alive – they are not afraid to kill off important characters, raising the stakes and making me actually care about their struggle.
I must take time also to praise the phenomenal Tilda Swinton. I am never disappointed by her, as she always completely inhabits her characters, but this time she does so so completely that I actually didn’t know it was her until the credits rolled. Few other actors can match her ability of transformation, which sadly too often goes unrecognized. In this role she walks a thin tightrope between comically ridiculous and inhumanly terrifying, always personifying the evils the characters are fighting. In one early scene she gives a long speech about a shoe and a hat – never before has something so ridiculous been so unsettling and engrossing. Seriously, I would watch Snowpiercer again just for Tilda Swinton.
To enjoy Snowpiercer you definitely have to be actively interested in off-beat, non-traditional sci-fi action/adventure flicks. Only an appreciation for the genre can allow one to overlook the questionable explanations and implausible, outrageous scenarios (see: sushi bar, leather brawl, rave, classroom). But if you allow yourself to buy into it, the film has a beautifully human centre, embodied by the reluctant hero Chris Evans – an expositional soliloquy he gives near the end of the film comes at the perfect time, and he delivers the melodramatic content with sincerity and believability, bringing full circle the tragic plight of both the train and its inhabitants. So, I do think you should go watch Snowpiercer… but don’t blame me if you don’t like it.